Rachel J. Smith on Tina Beattie’s Theology after Postmodernity — Divining the Void: A Lacanian Reading of Thomas Aquinas
According to Michel de Certeau, historians traffic in lost things. They pick through trash, dreaming of the house from which it came, combing it for evidence of lives once lived. De Certeau characterizes the historical enterprise as inherently melancholic, for no matter how beautifully one reconstructs its traces, history remains in large part entombed. There is no resurrecting it. Yet, historians continue to attempt just that. Historiography, de Certeau writes, “offers representation in the place of bereavement.” And inadequate representation at that: the past forever exceeds historical narratives that, like theological utterance, gesture towards something that can never be captured.
The new book by British Catholic feminist theologian Tina Beattie, bears witness to de Certeau’s notion of the excess in history. The medieval theology she writes about is not a thirteenth-century trash heap that she attempts to remake into a simulacra of the original but a living theological inheritance by which she is claimed, one to which she is beholden but one that is lost to her even as it lives on in her faith. The book is a document of her own melancholic longing for its resurrection.
This longing is not untinged by nostalgia: Beattie’s medieval past is one in which everyone was mystically oriented, suffused with desire for a God of mystery, a God not limited by the cage of human reason. Beattie believes that profound problems in both modern Catholicism and secular life can be solved by a retrieval of this medieval imaginary. She does not, however, portray this imaginary through the exposition of the usual suspects, whether female mystical writers or theologians like Meister Eckhart to whom many with similar interests appeal. Instead, Thomas Aquinas is, for Beattie, the exemplary medieval voice, but — and this is a crucial caveat — only after he has gone through a purifying fire of deconstruction using the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan. In a kind of theological gene therapy, Beattie hopes Lacanian deconstruction will strip the deforming elements of Greek philosophy from Thomas’s thought, restoring the essential Thomistic genome, providing a “Thomism for our times” — one able to address the problems of environmental destruction and sexism that plague this era. However, Beattie’s deconstruction is so effective that little remains in her account of Thomas that is hospitable to her view of a theology oriented irreducibly around mystery.
Aquinas isthe exemplary medieval voice, but only after he has gone through a purifying fire of deconstruction using the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan.
Thomas, a thirteenth-century Dominican, attempted to reconcile Christian revelation with the thought of Aristotle, whose works, lost to the Latin West, again became accessible to scholars only after the mid-twelfth century. He affirmed reason to be an essential part of human nature, completed and perfected by divine grace: philosophical thought, pursued properly, he argued, should guide theological inquiry and, in certain instances, might even correct it.
It seems perhaps ironic or counterintuitive that Thomas Aquinas had more faith in reason than Jacques Lacan. If Thomas defended the seamless connections between faith and reason, Lacan, a twentieth-century French psychoanalyst and atheist, deconstructed what he held to be the masculinist illusion that reason enables one to attain mastery of oneself, of others, of the world. This assessment is what makes Lacan a useful resource for Beattie: first, to critique what she sees as Thomas’s too-confident reliance on philosophy at the expense of the uncertainties of faith and, second, to demonstrate the gendered nature of Thomas’s arguments and their presuppositions.
Beattie’s central argument is that, in uniting theology with Aristotelian philosophy, Thomism bought into the fantasy of mastery through reason and forgot about human limitation. This forgetting occurs, she argues, at the fundamental level of being and becoming, terms that are, she argues through Lacan, gendered. She turns to Lacan in order to uncover the theological and ethical implications of an Aristotelian ontology in which being is “fantasized” as the copulation of paternal form and maternal matter. Form is the active male principle that impresses itself upon inert, empty matter (the feminine principle) creating something that “is.” The conjugation of these gendered elements gives rise to a series of dualisms — including wholeness and lack, activity and passivity, spirit and flesh — that “organize human relationships and sexual identities.” In Beattie’s reading, Lacan’s critique of sexual difference in western culture is a critique of Thomist-Aristotelian ontology, for it shows the ways in which sexual difference is locked in the terms of privation and plenitude, activity and passivity. Woman is on the side of lack — passivity, prime matter, flesh — while man is on the side of activity, fullness, language, what for Beattie is summed up with the concept of “form,” although this is not a favored Lacanian term. For Lacan, “woman” does not signify the biologically female body — something unique, particular, with its own morphology — but is defined by what she does not have.
This absolute distinction between lack and plenitude, woman and man, activity and passivity, has crucial theological implications when applied to the divine-human relationship and, according to Beattie, these implications coalesce in Thomistic thought around the notion of “form.” The question of whether Thomas’s God is “form” is, she writes, the “question around which everything in this book implicitly revolves.” Her concern is that if God is identified with form, he is placed in the masculine position of the active power that impresses passive matter with shape in order to create. This notion of creation — the copulative account — imagines God as an inseminating principle. Materiality then comes to stand on the feminine side of the binary, marked as passive, deficient, awaiting the active, shaping hand of male form. Material existence, in this framework, stands in absolute distinction to the life of the spirit, which is placed on the masculine side of form and divinity. In ascribing no inherent value to material existence, Aristotelian ontology ultimately leads to the destruction of the earth, the exaltation of reason as control in scientific discourse, and misogynist social structures.
The identification of God with form also conflates God with creation, his “unconditional Otherness” forgotten. God becomes the supreme Entity who is bestowed with a morphology idolatrously based upon resemblance to certain entities (in a patriarchal order, to males). Women, being further down the chain of being and so possessing less of the divine form do not resemble God as do men. If Beattie’s former concern is that the notion of God as form does not sufficiently account for the relationship between God and material creation, spirit and flesh, the latter concern is that such a notion conflates certain elements of creation with divinity, idolatrously identifying maleness with God.
Strangely, despite Beattie’s claim that her discussion of form discloses “the key to the whole gendered ordering of Thomas’s theology,” her treatment of the concept seems to dissipate in the space of two pages. She concludes with a psychological rather than theological assessment of how the conflation of God with form occurred: “because man is culturally conditioned to think of himself as closer to God and therefore as nobler than woman, he begins to equate himself with form, which in turn he equates with God, while woman is the ‘below’ of matter in relation to both.” A discussion of Thomas’s theological predecessors would have been helpful here, as the assertion that God was without limit — namely, without form — was in fact a great departure in Christian theology in the fourth century and scandalous to Greek philosophical sensibilities, for the limitless, lacking proportion, lacked beauty and therefore could not be predicated of divine things. Unfortunately, Beattie does not address this background nor does she answer her own question of whether Thomas identifies God with form in his system.
If Beattie fails to answer her own question directly, she nevertheless offers suggestive evidence. Beattie clearly shows how Thomas’s ethics rely on the conflation of masculinity with divinity, revealing how his reading of Aristotle legitimizes medieval sexual hierarchies, divinizing (in the Thomist universe, naturalizing) sexism. Perhaps the most damning example of Thomas’s gendered ontology from a feminist perspective is his account of filial love. Thomas argues that the father “should be loved more than the mother” for “the father is principle in a more excellent way than the mother, because he is the active principle, while the mother is a passive and material principle.” Thomas invokes the Aristotelian theory of reproduction, arguing that in begetting, “the mother supplies the formless matter of the body; and the latter receives its form through … the semen of the father.” Beattie notes that here the biological facts “provide the blueprint for ethical principles.” By virtue of the formative power of the semen, the father deserves more love because his activity reflects God’s activity as the “inseminating first principle.”
For Beattie, such ethical strictures suggest a theology in which the fatherhood of God is conceived as the inseminating phallus, enabling males to deny their difference from God because of their morphological similarity to the divine form. In order to attain more resemblance to the divinity — to ascend to God — men must deny their connection to the mother and the body they received through her, what she terms a “matricidal ethos.”
Beattie shows how Thomas’s ethics rely on the conflation of masculinity with divinity, revealing how his reading of Aristotle legitimizes medieval sexual hierarchies.
So why does Beattie wend the difficult path of rehabilitating a figure she so thoroughly critiques? Evidently, for Beattie, Thomas’s God is the Catholic God, so not to attempt his rescue would be to leave Catholic theology in the clutches of a profoundly sexist vision. Secondly, this privileging of form over matter that Beattie finds in Thomas — and in most of the Christian tradition — persists, she argues, in contemporary culture in the “pornographic asceticism of modern sex,” reaching its apotheosis in, of all things, anal bleaching. Despite our materialism, she argues, “modernity wages war upon the body,” a war whose roots can be traced to “the ordering of society around Aristotelian categories of form and matter, male and female.” She writes:
The modern symbolic order cannot accommodate the messy, smelly, fatty, leaky, bloody, sweaty, menstruating, birthing, shitting, dying stuff of which we are made, and its intrusive power now extends into the most intimate aspects of human sexuality, procreation, and the female body. Meanwhile the Internet swarms with teenage vaginas and anuses for sale, and the desperate young girls behind the advertisements vanish into an undifferentiated sea of trafficked flesh that constitutes the hidden face of modern neo-liberalism … .
The ways in which modern beauty regimes exalt appearance and deathlessness and hide the messiness of corporeal life recapitulate the triumph of form over matter, ideal over real, terms which as she demonstrates are inescapably gendered and so lead to real-world effects on gendered bodies. Likewise, she argues, the modern Catholic “panic over sex,” which has made it a “vociferous ally of conservative politics,” is rooted in the “ancient belief that the female body is matter in relation to form, that the relationship between the sexes belongs within the order of being that connects all beings to the divine being, and that the disruption of the reproductive relationship between male form and female matter,” whether that be with gay marriage, birth control, or women’s assertion of their autonomy more generally, “threatens the cosmos with some nameless but terrifying chaos.” At stake for Beattie in this project, then, is the very viability of Catholicism in a postmodern world.
Beattie wants a theology that sanctifies matter without connecting that sanctity to a particular — or any — form and an ethos “that can accommodate more of the fragility, desire, and sexuality of human becoming than the Christian theological tradition has been able to” thus far. Inspired by Lacan, Beattie wants to sanctify the lack in all that is. In the words of her title, she wants to “divine the void.” Modernity, she argues, has misconstrued what it is “to be,” making being a quantitative matter, something we want more of, and in the search for the “more” we exploit others and the environment, wage war against our own fragile flesh, deny death. Because Lacan argues that lack is not something that should (or, ultimately can) be fled from but is rather the necessary precondition of entering into language and desire, he becomes for Beattie a key “theological” voice. Using Lacan, Beattie argues that when we accept human finitude, fragility, permanent incompleteness, we become able to relate to all others — human, animal, vegetable, mineral, and divine — as sacred and we no longer attempt to ingest or subsume these others in an attempt to fill the void that haunts all being. Instead, that void becomes the source of desire for God because it does not and cannot ever fully possess the divinity who remains forever, irreducibly different. This lack of possession — the inability to fill the void — is precisely what enables desire and sanctifies the lack within all created things.
After clearing away the brush of Aristotelian ontology, Beattie finds evidence of Lacanian insights about desire and human lack within Thomas’s work. Two sites she finds especially promising are Thomas’s “maternal trinity” and an “incarnational Thomism.”
Beattie’s description of incarnational Thomism draws on a kabbalistic theory of creation, traces of which she finds in Thomas. In kabbalistic thought, the divine being withdraws so that that which is other might arise. Creation in this account is not the flowing out of the phallic God into prime matter but the creation of space in which difference can arise. Upon divine withdrawal, both form and matter come into being. Because they are other than God, they desire God. This desire is the “trace/grace of divine being that lingers when God creates space for otherness to become.” The inability to capture God in any word or form is a lack that is not a deficiency to be overcome but is the condition of desire for God.
Thomas’s maternal Trinity likewise offers a model of identity arising in and through the relationship of difference. In a single passage from Thomas’s On Boethius, Beattie finds an account of the eternal generation of the Son (figured here as Sophia, or wisdom) within the godhead occurring “not through phallic insemination but through the spontaneous fecundity of maternal being.” Here he “implicitly deconstruct[s] the Aristotelian categories of inseminating form and maternal matter … God the Father is like a mother, and Christ the Son is feminized wisdom … Thomas simultaneously deprives the paternal function of its inseminating biological analogy, strips the masculinity of Christ of any essential significance, and divinizes the maternal function by using it as an analogy for God.”
It is important to note, however, that this maternal trinity keeps its primary title as father; the presence of a feminine power of generation may destabilize the notion of fatherliness as phallic power but it remains nevertheless the divine archetype. Furthermore, the ascription of “spontaneous fecundity” to the maternal (the term spontaneous, I assume, suggesting that it is somehow unthought) runs of the risk of simply reinscribing problematic notions of the feminine as other than thought, a void “divined” by desire which remains, nevertheless, a void.
There is a profound strain in Beattie’s reading of these subtle shifts in theological metaphor that gives the book its melancholy tone. The constructive portion of the book often reads as a wish list for what Thomas might have done, or perhaps would have done if he had written the Summa after the famous mystical experience that made all his writing seem to him as straw. If only, she writes, we could “rewrite the whole Summa theologiae” from the perspective of her favored passage in On Boethius. The sparseness of citations from Thomas on the maternal Trinity or the notion of creation as withdrawal attests to the difficulty of making Thomas the theological resource she desires. More strangely, she avoids discussion of those parts of Thomas that might have helped her, particularly his theories of theological language, which would have potentially strengthened her retrieval project and helped to contextualize Thomas’s thought within the larger tradition.
Beattie attempts to ascribe to Thomas what Lacan found in the medieval mysticism of figures like Hadewijch and Teresa of Avila, who spoke of being filled with a lack that could not be overcome, an absence that was the necessary, if painful, condition of their connection with God. Beattie tries to put at the heart of the tradition and its authoritative discourse — Thomism — a marginalized mystical discourse. However, in some ways her own method works against her. Leo XIII’s encyclical of 1879, Aeterni Patris, sought to push back against the rise of modern philosophy by proclaiming Thomistic thought the “true” philosophy. By treating Thomas as the exemplary medieval theologian, Beattie implicitly continues this tradition, rendering the medieval (and Catholic) purely Thomistic (the only other representative of the period offered by Beattie is Catherine of Siena, whose life and writing she considers to be a “form” of Thomas’s theology). Beattie’s attempt to read Thomas against himself, rather than to create another tidy system that ignores the significant tensions, contradictions, and subtexts in his work, is deeply admirable. However, in some ways it sits uncomfortably alongside her treatment of him as a singular medieval voice. Thomas is not the sum of Catholicism or even of medieval theology. This Thomistic reduction of Catholicism seems driven not simply by what Thomas wrote but by his authority, an authority she lends to Lacan, who is, in many ways, the book’s true subject.
Beattie’s arguments about Thomas are unexpected, creative, and often beautiful. But the “shimmers” she finds in Thomas of a maternal Trinity and her version of his incarnationalism are, at least in her rendering, very faint. Rather than mourn him, Beattie offers this Lacanian representation of Thomas, one in which Thomas is deconstructed but never quite rebuilt, his resurrection never quite complete.
Also Recommended from MRB:
- Necessary by Nature? Possibility and the Mind of God – By Robert Merrihew Adams
- A Unified Reading of Maimonides’ Guide – By Dani Rabinowitz
- To Speak Truly About God – By Rowan Williams
- Enlightened Religion? Idealism as the History and Destiny of Modern Theology – By Samuel Loncar