“Works of Love in a World of Violence,” with Deidre Green [MIPodcast #63]
Christians are commanded in scripture to love one another, to turn the other cheek and bless those who curse them. How can Christians meet these obligations when someone acts an abusive or even violent ways toward them?
In this episode, we’re joined by Maxwell Institute visiting scholar Deidre Green. She is a theologian and author of a book called Works of Love in a World of Violence. Her book tackles these difficult questions in dialogue with feminist and womanist theologians.
Deidre Nicole Green is a visiting scholar at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. She earned a master’s in religion from Yale Divinity School and a PhD in religion from Claremont Graduate University, specializing in women’s studies in religion and philosophy of religion and theology. She is author of Works of Love in a World of Violence: Feminism, Kierkegaard, and the Limits of Self-Sacrifice. Her article on “the sin of selflessness” was recently published in The Journal of Religion.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. Christians are commanded in scripture to love one another, to turn the other cheek, to bless those who curse them. How can Christians meet these obligations when someone is acting in abusive or even violent ways toward them?
In this episode, we’re joined by Deidre Green. She’s a theologian and author of a book called Works of Love in a World of Violence. Her book tackles these difficult questions in dialogue with feminist and womanist theologians.
Questions and comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast could be sent to mipodcast at byu dot edu. And don’t forget to rate and review the show in iTunes. Let people know what you think about the show.
Deidre Nicole Green is a visiting scholar at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. She earned her master’s degree in religion from Yale Divinity School and a PhD in religion from Claremont Graduate University specializing in women’s studies in religion and philosophy of religion and theology. Today we’re talking about her book Works of Love in a World of Violence, Feminism, Kierkegaard, and the Limits of Self-Sacrifice. And we’ll also talk a little about her recent article on the “Sin of Selflessness,” which was published in the Journal of Religion.
Deidre, thanks for joining us today on the podcast.
DEIDRE GREEN: Thank you, Blair.
HODGES: I want to start with a quote you open your book with. You say, “As a religious scholar concerned with the well-being and flourishing of women, I focus on the ways in which religious beliefs inform and impact actual lives and bodies.” I’m interested in your response to questions that some people might raise when you talk about focusing on women in particular. Talk a little bit about why that focus?
GREEN: Sure. I think we always have to be careful to realize that religion, theology, doctrine are not things that we can just abstract away from people’s everyday lives. They have all kinds of impacts in the material world, in our lived experience. I specialize in thinking about how religious doctrines and theologies impact women specifically. And I think that’s extremely important to address primarily because, for the most part, religious doctrine and theology and scripture is articulated from a perspective of men. And so it’s important to start to think about how these doctrines impact women specifically and how they might be revised or reformulated to better meet the needs of women.
HODGES: Some people might think about how the Gospel is universal, it applies to men and women, and we have, for example, the apostle Paul saying there’s no male or female, there’s no slave or free person, that all in Christ are one, and this sort of thing (Galatians 3:28). You say the way we understand Christianity is very personal, it’s very embodied. The experiences that women have, the experiences that men have—and to drill down even further, the experiences that different women have compared to other women and so forth—you can keep drilling down to see different ways that theology can play out in people’s lives.
GREEN: Sure. And I would add this: The way that we interpret and understand and comprehend religion—the teachings that come across the pulpit, what we read in the scriptures for example—is always going to be mediated by the way that we’re embodied in the world. So, the way that my sex, my gender, my color, right? and my ability, right? all impact the way I experience the world, the way others experience me, and the way that religion is going to play out in my life.
HODGES: There’s a fascinating footnote in your article in the Journal of Religion where you talk about public service announcements that were made about heart attack symptoms. I think this really illustrates the point well.
GREEN: Sure. Right. So there I’m drawing on the work of Jodie Lyon who talks about the fact that we can kind of draw a corollary between disparities between the way that men and women sin to the way that men and women experience heart attacks. Men and women’s symptoms are radically different when they experience a heart attack. If we’re only thinking about the sort of symptoms that are normal for men to experience when they have a heart attack, we could completely overlook what would happen to a woman, to the extent that women—their lives are at risk then. Women could die simply because we don’t recognize what a heart attack looks like in a female. We don’t promulgate that and educate people about that.
And there’s a very strong corollary to what I’m doing when I think about self-sacrifice or excess of selflessness as being understood as a sin for women. That actually, we’re driving women deeper into sin, and we might think about that—as LDS people do—as literally a sort of spiritual death. If we aren’t aware of and talking about the various symptoms of sin, and how it might look different in a woman’s life versus a man’s life, then we’re actually asking women to stay in a position of spiritual death.
HODGES: That heart attack comparison really opened my eyes again to this idea that there are different ways in which the gospel can play out according to how we’re situated in our own cultures, which as you said can be different depending on gender, sexuality, race, class, ability, all these different things. And so you say it’s important to listen to a lot of different voices when we’re talking about theology. I feel like your work tries to exemplify that.
You just brought up self-sacrifice. Let’s get to that because your book focuses a lot on this. Christian discussion often conflates love with self-sacrifice. This is one of your arguments here. And you also say these are values that are impressed more upon women than men as you just mentioned. What are some scriptural examples that are frequently cited in discussions of love and self-sacrifice? Let’s talk about some specific things people are getting from scripture.
GREEN: Sure. So I think this becomes epitomized in Christ’s statement that “greater love hath no man than this, that he would lay down his life for his friends,” right? (John 15:13). That’s one of the major critiques that a lot of theologians are going to make of the cross. When we start to think about the cross as the epitome of what love looks like, what are we encouraging and engendering in everyday human beings, and specifically in those that are already being asked to carry a sort of undue burden of self-sacrifice within society—so women, people of color, et cetera.
HODGES: You interact a lot in your book with feminist and womanist theologians. Before we unpack that a little bit, why don’t you define those terms for people that aren’t familiar with feminist—and probably womanist is even less known.
GREEN: Sure. You mentioned the way that I introduced myself at the beginning of the book—being concerned with the flourishing and well-being of a women. That could be a very broad way to think about feminism, feminist theology being really invested in talking about the equality of women and women’s equal standing within various religions.
But also, as I’m trying to push, really to start to think about things more from women’s experience and women’s perspectives. And so my own approach is to really try to lift up women’s experience as an authoritative source. We often take for granted—as you were kind of alluding to earlier—that doctrine and scripture is sort of universally applicable without bothering to think about the fact that those are all articulated from the standpoint of men, for the most part. That remains sort of opaque to us. But it’s something that feminists try to really illuminate and make transparent and say, “Okay, so women’s experience also has to be seen as a valid source of authority, and one that can stand often in tension with scripture and doctrine.”
HODGES: Unpack the idea of authority a little bit more. What you mean by that as far as giving women’s experiences authority?
GREEN: Yeah. So in terms of giving us a source, right, for how we begin to articulate doctrine, practice, theology. Within the LDS tradition scripture is an obvious one. The words of apostles and prophets being another one. Our practices, especially ordinances, all would count as those sort of sources of authority. And from a feminist theological perspective, it’s really important to introduce women’s everyday lived experience as a source of authority.
I’ll give you an example. I was teaching my Book of Mormon class the other day and—
HODGES: This is here in Brigham Young University—
GREEN: —Yeah, here at BYU. I was talking about the fact that within the church we often are fond of describing doctrines in terms of analogy to everyday experience. And as I started to give examples of that—for example, childcare. We hear general conference talks where women are illuminating a doctrinal principle through their experience of caring for children. And of course, that kind of blew my students’ mind because all they could think of was examples of heart surgery and aviation, right? [Laughter] Which are other good ones as well. But it often seems counterintuitive within a masculinist religious culture to be able to see that women’s everyday lived experience is also a source for doing theology and thinking through religious practice.
HODGES: Would you imagine that women in the LDS tradition get more practice at doing this sort of translation between gendered metaphor and theology precisely because a lot of the metaphors and examples more frequently come from men, because men speak more often?
GREEN: What I would say is that women have to often kind of do double the work to read themselves into scripture, to understand their own lives in light of scripture, because there aren’t very many clear analogies to their own life experience. And so part of lifting up women’s everyday lived experience as a source of authority is a way of kind of dis-burdening women in that way and starting to see that their contemporary modern voices and experiences are legitimate in and of themselves, their own experiences of God are legitimate in and of themselves, and that kind of dis-burdens them from having to do all that extra work of reading themselves into a canon where they don’t really feature very prominently.
HODGES: It’s probably good for men, as well, to have to do more of that practice. I think as men get more used to that, they’ll find the usefulness of doing that. As women have been translating all these years and getting some nourishing and helpful theological ideas from doing that, men likewise could do the same by having to work more with sort of feminine metaphors more often.
GREEN: Absolutely. And I think, if we really think about some of our values as Latter-day Saints—I mean, think about how much the description of Christ Atonement in Alma 7 has been really highlighted and emphasized over the last several years. Empathy is a major Christlike attribute that we want to lift up and emulate. And maybe we can even think about this experience of listening more to women’s articulations of Mormonism as being a sort of exercise in empathy.
HODGES: It’s Christlike.
GREEN: Right. So that Latter-day Saint men can start to really think about and reflect on women’s own experiences of living the gospel, their own challenges and their own triumphs in that, and be instructed by those as much as women are by men. And it also allows women to stop sort of over-identifying with a male perspective or defining themselves through a male perspective, which I think seems much more appropriate, given our emphasis on individual work our emphasis on agency, and thinking about the sort of interdependence of women and men within Mormonism.
HODGES: So that’s a decent baseline look at feminism—and people should know there are a lot of different types of feminism. Womanist in particular is something less people may have heard of. What about womanist in particular?
GREEN: Sure. Womanist theology refers to a particular movement for women of color. I think it’s an extremely important voice to consider and one that I have focused on quite a bit in the book largely because it speaks to the issue of this sort of double marginalization. That it’s not just about sexism, but it’s also about racism, and how do we start to think about women’s doubly marginalized position in society. And I think it really speaks to the heart of some of the important critiques of self-sacrifice are. So I focus in my book on the very groundbreaking work with a womanist theology of Delores Williams. In the early 1990s when she published Sisters in the Wilderness, she gave just an incredibly cogent critique of the valorizatioon of Christ on the cross. And to say, “look, this is really lifting up an experience of surrogate suffering. This is exactly what black Africans engaged in with slavery in American history and it’s a burden that they’ve had to carry throughout.” And especially, she wants to talk about black women’s experience of surrogate suffering and to say “we just can’t endorse a reading of the cross like this and we need to start thinking about theology differently.” This is the kind of damage it can do. It can endorse this sort of gross atrocities, right, that black women have to undergo in a situation like slavery and in an imposed slavery context where they continue to be doubly marginalized within American society.
HODGES: And as we go on and talk about some more critiques of Christian theology, people will be able to see some of these influences from the feminist and womanist thinkers that you’re interacting with here. But before we move on to that, one more question about feminism. Have you encountered resistance to feminism in a Latter-day Saint context? When you talk about doing feminist theology have you found it to be a loaded term and how would you sort of help people understand, to address some of the faulty assumptions such as “feminism is anti-man” and things like that?
GREEN: Yeah. One thing that I think is especially compelling about feminist theological thought, one that I emphasize a lot in my own work, is really the privileging of community. It’s also a part of why I draw on womanist theology quite a bit because again, it’s really privileging the community—in that case, the black community. But starting to think about how the flourishing of women is a necessary part of the flourishing of the entire community.
It really sits well with Mormon thinking—thinking of Zion people, right? Thinking of interdependence, a sort of vision that Mormonism has held on to since the nineteenth century of working together, making sure there are no poor among them. And thinking about that not just in terms of material well-being, but spiritual, emotional, psychological well-being. Thinking about people’s ability to thrive. So, I really don’t think about feminism as being anti-male, but as being something that contributes to the well-being of the entire LDS or religious community.
HODGES: That’s Deidre Green. We’re talking today about her book, Works of Love in a World of Violence. And we’re also talking about her recent article on “The Sin of Selflessness.”
Deidre, let’s get more specific about some of the problems you talk about in the book. Christians are commanded to love one another. How does a person meet that obligation when someone acts in an abusive or even violent way toward them? This is a question that’s driving your work here. And feminist and womanist critics have identified at least four major problems with common views of self-sacrifice. Let’s talk about these in turn.
And before we do that as well, let me just say it’s refreshing to see you engaging at the highest level with some of these thinkers and not being afraid of engaging these ideas, because sometimes it can feel like an attack on one’s faith. Did you get that sense at all as you’re working with these critics?
GREEN: Yeah. I mean, certainly in my book, I’m taking on in large part, the most radical voices within feminist theology. So, I used the imagery of throwing the baby out with bathwater, right? Which is what I think many of them do—and for reasons that we can understand, that we can empathize with. At the same time, I feel that Christianity is strong enough to stand up to those critiques. But we need to take them seriously and start to rethink the way that we formulate our theology, the way that we read certain symbols, and to rethink what we’re engendering in everyday people on the ground and the way that we talk about Christian doctrine.
And so I can certainly see that some of those arguments are sort of intimidating or may feel threatening. At the same time, I think it’s absolutely necessary—as I’ve written, I see this as life and death sorts of issues. There are issues that we have to confront and we have to allow ourselves to be challenged by various perspectives in the world and allow them to help us to become better.
HODGES: So let’s talk about some of these challenges. The first one is that some feminist and womanist ethologist have pointed out that particular views of the atonement itself, the suffering of Christ as a redemptive suffering, can condone abuse and justify violence. How so?
GREEN: Well, in my book I give a real-life example of a woman who went to her pastor for advice and counsel. She was being severely beaten by her husband. And the pastor’s counsel was that she should bear the beatings gladly as Christ bore the cross.
HODGES: Could save the man, right, it could result in his eventual repentance—
GREEN: Right. And to make family primary, right?
GREEN: And to say that there are some sort of inherently good results from suffering at the hands of someone else, that’s somehow intrinsically good.
And while it’s an extreme situation, I think it’s very valuable to use an extreme situation like this, because it helps us to sort of magnify the problem and to see in high resolution what’s going on when we talk about self-sacrifice, when we conflate love and suffering. But I think just on an everyday level, we tend to think that any act of selflessness, any act of self-sacrifice, or any sort of act of martyrdom, right—suffering at another person’s hands—somehow makes us good Christians, instead of thinking in much more nuanced ways about the various ways in which Christianity also calls us to resist, to set boundaries, to have a strong sense of self and self-love and to stand up for ourselves. So their challenge really helps us to stop thinking overly simplistically about our faith and about what Christian love looks like.
HODGES: And you mentioned that experience with the pastor, it’s pretty striking, and I’m familiar with some people within the LDS tradition that have received those same kind of suggestions. It seems this isn’t a problem that’s particular to any particular Christian tradition. But drawing on the same set of scriptures, it can crop up in a lot of different traditions.
GREEN: Sure. Absolutely.
HODGES: So the second major criticism that you turn to in the book is that where people have observed that some Christian beliefs seem to promote a fixation on death, a fixation on suffering, and even a denial of the body. This one was a little more difficult for me to wrap my head around.
GREEN: Yeah. So basically, we can think about, obviously, a focus on Christ’s suffering and the atonement and Christ’s death on the cross as being a central symbol and a central moment of Christianity. So that’s one very clear example. When that gets overemphasized, right, at the expense of thinking about images like that of resurrection, or thinking about miracles of multiplying bread and fishes to feed hungry people. Or at the expense of images of caring for another person in terms of providing a meal or washing feet. And that becomes a problem.
It isn’t, of course, to deny the efficacy of Christ’s suffering and death at all. In fact, my book is very much motivated at upholding the place of atonement within Christian theology. But it is to say we need to hold certain symbols, we need to hold this sort of valorization of death and suffering in tension with lots of other aspects of Christianity that really allow us to speak to the wholeness of Christian life, rather than overemphasizing one aspect.
One very clear line of argumentation that will help to make this clear is to say women’s bodies—for obvious reasons, right—have been closely associated with fecundity, with natality, with procreation. And so some feminist scholars will argue that to really focus on death as opposed to something like birth is a sort of denial or devaluation of what woman contribute to creation and to humanity.
HODGES: How do you see that playing out in an LDS context as opposed to some other Christian contexts? Do you see any differences or similarities there?
GREEN: Well, I think Mormonism really is so advantageous in a lot of ways in this area. About ten years ago I wrote a critique of Blake Ostler’s theory of atonement where I talked about how I think in general, the LDS tradition has responded to some of these problems—Unwittingly responded to some of these problems or corrected some of these problems.
For one thing, not using the crucifix as our major symbol but thinking more about Gethsemane and thinking about Christ’s communion with God in terms of prayer, right, is one positive thing. Focusing also on the resurrection and Latter-day Saints’ obvious commitment [laughs] to procreation and proliferation of its people, I think also can helpfully counteract that.
I would add also our doctrine provides a lot more than I think we actually embrace as much as I think we should. So we looked to passages in the Doctrine and Covenant such as section 88 or 93. We talk about the soul of the human being both body and spirit, right? Those are integral parts that we don’t want to extricate one from another. Or looking also in section 93, Joseph talking about how there cannot be a fullness of joy, right, without a body. So I think that we definitely have lots of rich resources within the LDS tradition that uniquely allow us to sort of counteract this body denial, or denial of sexuality, or denial of the goodness of life and flourishing. At the same time, I don’t know that we’ve lived up to our privileges, to use a phrase from Joseph Smith, in terms of really emphasizing those aspects of our doctrine.
HODGES: Yeah. There’s this interesting quote in the book from Christine Gudorf and she’s talking about the idea that sacrificial suffering is the way toward wholeness. This idea in Christianity that sacrificial suffering is this way to become what God wants you to become, so to speak. And she’s saying that that’s one side of it. There’s this other side to it, and the quote is, “It’s dangerous and cruel to assume that suffering inevitably leads to real life, to joy, to meaning, to wholeness. All human beings are called not only to share in the suffering and death of Christ, but also in the glory of the resurrection.”
So she’s trying to emphasize two different things there instead of one at the expense of the other.
GREEN: Right. Absolutely. And I think that’s really one of the beauties of Christian theology— this image we have of both Christ suffering in death and rising in resurrection—is that it speaks again to that wholeness of human existence.
As you know in the book where I’m engaging the thought of the nineteenth century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, he uses kind of analogous imagery where he talks about the lowliness of Christ but also the glory of Christ. And he says that as Christian followers of Christ, we commit simply to follow him, right? We don’t actually know what we’re getting ourselves into in a certain sense. But we don’t get to just choose that we want the lowliness without the glory or the glory without the lowliness. We’re just choosing to follow Christ. And so I think overemphasizing sacrifice is a way of sort of becoming almost like gods unto ourselves instead of simply following Christ, receiving whatever life has to present us with. Instead, we decide that suffering and sacrifice are the only goods in some way.
HODGES: Okay. So those are the first two criticisms that you cover. I think it’s good to be more careful and thoughtful about these things as we think about our theology. So the third point that people raise that you respond to is that self-sacrificial ideals have often been employed by religious cultures—usually patriarchal religious cultures you say—in ways that mainly impact women and other dis-empowered groups. So not only is the problem overemphasizing the self-sacrifice ideal, but it’s also disproportionately affecting women and other dis-empowered groups. Would you speak to that?
GREEN: Absolutely. Well, there’s so much that could be said. Maybe one way—since we’re kind of extrapolating what I’m doing in the book to the LDS community and this conversation, I’ll give one clear example.
So when we talk about sort of the social roles that men and women play within Mormonism, we talk about men being providers for families and needing to have jobs and preside over their homes, and then we talk about women needing to be nurturers, having the primary responsibility for caring for their children. We always frame this in terms of sacrifice. So we talk about women sacrificing things like education and a career and worldly accomplishments in order to stay home and nurture their children. It seems very ironic given the very privileged position that family and childrearing has within Mormonism that we don’t think about men leaving their families and going out into the workplace or pursuing education to be able to provide as a sacrifice. We think about women staying home and caring for children as a sacrifice. But this is the very thing that is lauded and we compare women, really, to Christ in terms of their sort of selfless service and being willing to put others first. And it’s not to say that being out in the world and providing for a family or being in the home and nurturing a family is better or worse, but it’s just the fact that we describe it in those terms. So we’re automatically sort of giving this valued position to what seems to be sort of sacrificial. But it’s actually very paradoxical.
HODGES: Interesting. I’m also thinking of Nakashima Brock, who is someone you engage with in this part of the book, who offers an insight about women sort of avoiding positions of power, or seeming to avoid them.
GREEN: Yeah. So it’s interesting, reading Nakashima Brock, an Asian feminist theologian there is talking about how often when women are sort of nervous about making a claim to power, or sort of seeking for authority—whether it’d be within their religious context or other social contexts—there always seems to be sort of negative connotations towards power and authority. And she says that often that’s based on women’s very negative experience of being on the underside of power and authority. So women sort of shy away from that and see that as very negative. From my perspective, one clear antidote to that is to have women and men sort of sharing power and being more interdependent in very constructive positive ways so that women on the one hand don’t have to experience the negative underside of power and that women also can feel comfortable experiencing power.
HODGES: Another point that you bring up in this section is the fact that a lot of women can identify or they can have a special understanding of the crucified Christ because they feel like that image legitimizes their own suffering. Christ suffers for someone else. Women suffer for someone else. And for all the good that can do, you say it can also turn in on itself. That can become self-destructive at a point.
GREEN: Absolutely. Women, because they often are sacrificing for other people or suffering for other people, putting other people’s needs before their own, they identify with the suffering Christ in a particular way. But at the same time, it can engender a sort of complacency within their own lives where, instead of taking a sort of practical approach in terms of seeking for ways to make their lives better, more satisfying, happier, more fulfilling, instead they just say, “I’ve arrived.” Right? I identify with this figure who I’m supposed to spend my life trying to be like. I think within the Mormon tradition, it’s very rich to go back to Second Nephi chapter 2 and think about what it means to be an agent unto yourself, what it means to act rather than be acted upon.
HODGES: The Doctrine and Covenants talks about being anxiously engaged.
GREEN: Sure. Absolutely.
HODGES: Christ talked about having life more abundantly.
GREEN: Absolutely. Right? So starting to think about ways in which we can be very proactive and creating a life of flourishing and fulfillment, of “fulfilling the measure of our creation,” right, comes straight from Mormon scripture. So I think it’s incredibly important for us again to start to lift up these aspects of human experience and what we ought to be aiming for instead of sort of relegating ourselves to this place of suffering where we don’t have to do anything to change our external circumstances, but rather to just identify with Christ as sufferer rather than the Christ who overcomes the world, right? The Christ who resurrects, right? The Christ who can never be crucified again.
HODGES: And also the Christ who doesn’t say always be passive, but also encourages people to seek justice. There’s the importunate widow who exemplifies demanding justice, this powerful figure, using her voice. And so it seems like there’s a time for everything. The Ecclesiastes verse about how “there’s a time to every purpose under heaven,” so there’s a time maybe to be more passive. But perhaps there’s also a time to be more proactive and to seek that abundant life and to find different ways to follow Christ that aren’t always the self-effacing, typically self-sacrificing type of ways.
The fourth point that you approach in your book is about the fact that valuing self-sacrifice can tend to discourage women especially from being more self-realizing, self-defining. It can prevent them from flourishing.
GREEN: Yeah. Absolutely. I would name this as being the most insidious and probably the most pervasive of all of these problems that I deal with in the book. And I think particularly within Latter-day Saint culture it might be—hopefully not too dramatic to say—something like an epidemic in which women believe that selflessness is so important that caring for others’ needs is so important that they don’t even really become all that they can be as individuals, right? They don’t set boundaries. They don’t have their own goals and objectives. They don’t pursue their own educations or their own ways of contributing back to the larger society beyond the home, which I think is just a great tragedy. I think Mormon women have so much to offer the world, that they ought to be contributing both in the home and the larger society rather than feeling kind of confined or restricted to just the home.
HODGES: There’s a sense in which, I think, Latter-day Saints can really benefit from thinking about what you’re talking about here. There’s a section in the book where it talks about the idea that pride is the universal sin. And a lot of Latter-day Saints are familiar with this idea because there’s that great talk by Ezra Taft Benson, a former president of the LDS church, his great sermon on pride where he talks about pride being the universal sin. Wider Christianity has been influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr’s discussion about pride as being the universal sin. And you saw a problem, and feminist theologians and womanist theologians have seen a problem with this claim, and we hinted at it earlier when we talked about heart attacks, but I want to talk about it now.
GREEN: Great. This is one of my great passions and a consistent focus of my scholarly work, is to think about what sin might look like from the perspective of women’s lived experience. So while it’s easy enough to say that pride is the universal sin and we understand sin as manifesting itself in the world as this sort of urge to dominate and coerce and control other people, extort and get what we want out of other people, that it’s hard to imagine the typical woman being that way. Certainly, there are lots of exceptions, right? I’m not interested in essentializing it in any way. But typically, we see these patterns that we wouldn’t normally think of a woman when we start describing someone in that way.
So feminist theologians ask us to say, okay, let’s take a step back and now let’s set a women on a stage. Are we still going to say that her major sin is being prideful and overbearing and dominating and trying to get what she wants from people at any expense? Probably not, right?
HODGES: Probably not—and if she has even a little bit of any of those characteristics, they’re probably viewed way out of proportion compared to, you know.
GREEN: [laughs] Sure. Absolutely. So feminist theologians are going to say, wait, so now we have a woman on the stage, let’s think about what her sin is going to be. It’s probably going to be something almost antithetical to what we see in a stereotypical male. And it’s probably going to be that she has not so great a sense of self that she needs to coerce and dominate others, but instead, so little sense of self that she fails to even set her own boundaries or know who she is as a person, that she tends to dissolve herself, to lose herself in other’s people objectives and plans at the expense of really being an individual.
Some basic examples are things like gossiping, right? That there’s this sort of sense being into everyone else’s business, right, instead of having a strong sense of who I am and what I’m about and what my purpose in life is.
HODGES: You know who does that all the time? [laughs] No, I’m just kidding.
GREEN: [Laughing] For example—
HODGES: But yeah, I think that’s a good example, sorry! Go ahead.
GREEN: So what I’m interested in thinking about here is certainly not to say that because women might be more prone to self-sacrifice, that they shouldn’t self-sacrifice at all, right? I would never encourage people to stop feeding their children or driving them to school or something like that. My personal concern is that often we tend to reduce women to these practices of self-sacrifice and selflessness, to think that there’s nothing more for them, instead of, again, holding this necessary self-sacrifice and selflessness in tension with things like self-love and having a strong sense of what I was born to do and what I can uniquely contribute to the world, and making sure that I make space and set boundaries so that I can accomplish my purpose in life, so that I can realize the talents and gifts that God has uniquely given to me.
So again, there has to be sort of balance, and again, an interdependence between men and women where there’s self-sacrifice going on on both sides, and self-realization and self-fulfillment going on on both sides. Instead of women kind of being laid up on the altar in order for men to become self-realizing or children to become self-realizing. Instead of having a much healthier balance that I think much better fits what God has in mind for each human life, right?
Certainly, I can’t anticipate a loving, caring God who knows me individually thinking that I’m only on earth to support the lives of others. Of course, that’s part of my obligation and all of us ought to be invested in supporting the material, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, psychological welfare of other people. But none of us is uniquely called to just do that. None of us are reducible to that.
And so again, it comes to sort of a mature, evolved, healthy interdependence that I think we need within societies, within the LDS community, where everyone’s able to flourish, where everyone’s able to sacrifice for each other within bounds.
HODGES: One of the biggest light bulb moments for me in the entire book was this moment where you say “In order to self-sacrifice, you’ve got to have a self.”
HODGES: And that requires attention to the self, and self-love even. How did Kierkegaard’s thought, this Danish philosopher from the nineteenth century, how did he come to inform your thinking on this?
GREEN: Yeah. In so many ways. And ironically, to many people. Counterintuitively, to many people—
HODGES: Yeah. He was not the biggest feminist in the world [laughs].
GREEN: Absolutely not.
HODGES: Wasn’t really a thing back then.
GREEN: Yeah. I certainly don’t want to claim in any way that Kierkegaard was a feminist, but I think conceptually, theoretically, he offers so much that makes him a very powerful and strong interlocutor with contemporary feminist thought.
If we take this woman that I’ve been describing, that feminists are concerned about, who is too selfless, too self-sacrificing so that she actually is utterly amorphous, right? Kierkegaard offers some really wonderful insights about neighbor love and how the commandment says that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, right? This presupposes a self. And this presupposes that one loves oneself. And that we’re only loving to others to the degree that we love ourselves, right? He was going to flip the commandment back on itself and say, “what it means to love the neighbor properly is that I not only love the neighbor as myself, but I love myself as I love my neighbor,” right? These are on a complete parallel.
My own thought is that often—especially for women who have been taught by their culture their entire lives to over-identify with other people’s needs and place them before their own—that often we might come to self-love in this sort of indirect way as mediated through the neighbor. I think it’s hard for a lot of women to know what it looks like to love myself and then extrapolate that to neighbor love. But what we can do is say, Well, how do I love my neighbor? How do I love my child? How do I love my spouse? And now I have to do the hard work of showing myself that same sort of deference, that same sort of love, that same sort of respect.
HODGES: Sacrifice even, for yourself.
GREEN: Caring for myself in a way that is on some sort of parallel with the way that I care for others.
HODGES: That’s Deidre Green. We’re talking about her book, Works of Love in a World of Violence: Feminism, Kierkegaard, and the Limits of Self-Sacrifice. She also recently published an article in the Journal of Religion on the Sin of Selflessness.
So with each of these problems that critics have come up with, they also come up with various solutions to them. And as you said earlier, your goal isn’t to throw out the baby with the bathwater. As we’ve talked about throughout the conversation, you’ve come up with ways that Christians can still uphold these types of values but in a different way, in a way that isn’t self-destructive or in a way that doesn’t condone or promote violence. And we’ve talked a lot about you as a Latter-day Saint as well. I’m interested to hear how your own religious background has affected your research.
GREEN: I’ll say that what it comes down to for me, and what I argue in the book ultimately, is that a really important boundary or limit for self-sacrifice is, “what gives life?” and to think about appropriate forms of self-sacrifice as being those that are life-giving rather than life-denying. I would say that that’s very much informed by my own experience of being a Latter-day Saint.
As I mentioned earlier, I think that the Mormon tradition offers a really important counterpoint to some of the things that feminist theologians are critiquing in traditional Christianity. The importance of procreation, the importance of childbirth and caring and nurturing for children. The emphasis on the resurrection. And so I would say that there are a lot of resources within the LDS tradition that really resonate and drive home the point of what I see feminist theologians critiquing. And I actually feel very indebted to feminist theology for helping me see what is so rich and so viable within the LDS tradition that we might take for granted without really thinking about some of their critiques.
HODGES: Maybe there’s a flip side to that, too, when you talked about the emphasis within the LDS tradition on childcare and this type of thing. Of course, as we know, not everybody gets to experience that for themselves in the same way. There are single women. There are couples who are infertile. There are all sorts of circumstances where the ideal can’t be or isn’t realized. What would you say in those circumstances, drawing on the kind of research that you’ve done?
GREEN: I think within the LDS tradition, a phrase that I’m fond of is that of “fulfilling the measure of our creation,” (D&C 88:19) and to think about that very individualistically. Of course as Latter-day Saints, we believe in patriarchal blessings, we believe that each of us has some very specific mission that’s given to us by God that no one else can quite accomplish in the same way. And if we start to think about that, that sense of vocation as a sort of stewardship, right, and then start to think about our selfhood as a sort of stewardship, then we get the sense that there is something that we have to protect, something that we have to cultivate, and that we have a sort of divine obligation to protect and cultivate that personal vocation.
I think for one thing, that sets an important limit on selflessness and self-sacrifice. And then it also speaks to this issue that can take a whole bunch of different forms and that has to be very individualistic. I think what is a great strength about focusing on that—especially in the context of our highly conformist culture within Mormonism—is to realize that fulfilling my personal vocation really forces me—or hopefully impels me, right—to forge a very intimate strong relationship with deity in terms of me being able to discern what that vocation is and finding ways to carry it out in ways that are meaningful and pleasing to God and hopefully enjoyable to the self.
What I think often gets lost within Mormon culture is the fact that we all know what sort of cookie cutter mold we’re supposed to fit into. And so if we just fit all of the criteria we’ll be okay, at the complete expense of both that sort of real personal relationship with deity and a very strong sense of “I’m here to accomplish a particular task that I uniquely can accomplish.” I think there’s a real tension within Mormon culture that can really—to use the phrase from the Book of Mormon—”lull us into a state of carnal security,” right, away from accomplishing this task of realizing who we are as individuals and contributing to the world in a way that no one else is going to be able to do.
HODGES: That’s Deidre Nicole Green. She’s currently a visiting scholar at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. She has a master’s degree in religion from Yale Divinity and a PhD in religion from Claremont Graduate University. Today we talked about her book, Works of Love in a World of Violence: Feminism, Kierkegaard and the Limits of Self-Sacrifice.
What’s up next for you, Deidre?
GREEN: I’m currently writing the entry on feminism and gender for the Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Religion that will be published by Wiley-Blackwell. I’m also writing a piece for an anthology called The Kierkegaardian Mind, in which I’ll talk about Kierkegaard’s theory of atonement and how he sort of reads his own life through his understanding of Christian atonement. I’m also working on finishing a book-length manuscript called Becoming Love: Kierkegaard Visions for Christian Life.
HODGES: I’ll be looking out for that. I enjoyed Works of Love and I appreciate you taking the time to be on the Maxwell Institute Podcast today.
GREEN: Thank you.
HODGES: Thanks for listening to another episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m excited to let you know we have some great stuff coming up in future episodes as the Maxwell Institute continues its evolution as a dynamic research community.
The Summer Seminar on Mormon Culture is coming up again. This year it’s going to be directed by Terryl Givens and Philip Barlow. Givens and Barlow are the first visiting Neal A. Maxwell fellows here at the Institute. We’re also thrilled to have Catherine Taylor, Deidre Green, and Michael MacKay as visiting scholars this year. I’m also happy to let you know that Janiece Johnson has accepted the position of visiting research associate at the Maxwell Institute’s Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies. You’ll have a chance to hear from each of these scholars and learn more about their research soon.
The Maxwell Institute is also continuing our new guest lecture series and we want to bring the Maxwell Institute from Provo straight to your ears, wherever you are, giving you the chance to hear about all of the exciting scholarship that’s going on. You can follow updates about what we’re doing on Facebook, Twitter, and on our blog, and of course, I’ll be sharing some news here on the Maxwell Institute Podcast as well. Until then, I’m Blair Hodges, and thanks for listening.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)