Report and Reflections on the “Women and the Divine” Conference


“Divinity is what we need to become free, autonomous, sovereign. No human

subjectivity, no human society has ever been established without the help

of the divine”


This claim from Luce Irigaray’s now famous essay “Divine Women” was used as the epigraph for the Conference for the Institute of Feminist Theory and Research on the subject of Women and the Divine, hosted by the University of Liverpool and Liverpool Hope University College which I attended a week before this conference began.


The highlight of the conference was the presence of Luce Irigaray, the majority of participants having some interest in her work, but it was not exclusively an Irigaray conference.


Other keynote speakers included Jewish feminists (Regina Schwarz and Melissa Raphael), feminist scholars of religion (Morny Joy), philosophers of Religion (Pamela Sue Anderson) and Post-Christian feminists (Daphne Hampson).


Similarly conference participants came from a wide variety of disciplinary backgrounds and religious commitments from atheists and neopagans, to commited Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists.


My own interest in the conference was the opportunity to meet Luce Irigaray who was the primary subject of my doctoral thesis and to revisit the conversation that I had dropped out of since completing my doctorate five years ago.


While working on my Ph.D I had made deliberate choice not to meet Irigaray because I was unsure how she would react to my own project which sought to appropriate her insights to the Catholic theological tradition. I was criticized for this by Morny Joy who was one of my examiners, who informed that Irigaray’s own interests had moved towards the Eastern religions. Nonetheless, I remained convinced that her work was substantially shaped by a very catholic sensibility regardless of her own relationship to the Catholic Christian tradition. 


Irigaray now claims that she although she had left her own tradition “at least the conscious part of it”, she now claims to have returned to it, “not in order to blindly obey it but to reach some perspectives on my culture and thus on myself”.[1]


“The spirit of Roman Christianity” she suggests, “can be summarized in two key principles: an incarnational relationship between the body and the word, a philosophy and morality of love”.[2]


Of course, whether Irigaray’s God is simply a matter of subjectivity and the objective status of the personal God of Christianity remains a question, and one that was much discussed at the conference. It was the focus of Pamela Sue Anderson’s discussion in her plenary. However, Anderson concentrated solely upon Irigaray’s essay “Divine Women” which is indeed a Feuerbachian gesture, but one that I believe does not exhaust Irigaray’s thinking on the subject.







Ultimately I do not think the issue crucial for the value of Irigaray’s work for theology. On the contrary, a certain pragmatism with regards to what is life giving, which is Irigaray’s primary concern, should have an important place in theological reflection. What “gives life” should be our primary critical principle (cf. John 10:10). According to Rosemary Radford Ruether:


All our images of God are metaphors and projections from our human standpoint of an ultimate ground of being and new being that is beyond all such images. The question is not whether there are some images that are not human projections, but rather what human projections promote just and loving relationality, and which projections promote injustice and diminished humanness. Our images of God-self relation may be more than, but cannot be less than, that which promotes goodness in human relations.[3]


My own sense of Irigaray’s approach was confirmed by discussions I had with a number of doctoral students who had recently attended a week long workshop with Irigaray for doctoral students using her work, at the University of Nottingham. Their own experience was that Irigaray was not so much concerned with a correct interpretation and application of her work so much as she was with what was helpful and useful for their individual projects.


I myself consider the primary value of Irigaray’s work to lie in the questions that it raises. To take one example from the conference, Irigaray told the story of a male colleague of “good will” who suggested that perhaps in the end both Mary and Jesus will be held to be of equal status. With a cheeky grin Irigaray told how she suggested to him that perhaps Mary would turn out to be more important. “Just a question” she suggested.


Of course this is an outrageous suggestion. But I believe it is worth considering, if only to attempt to understand Mary’s contribution to salvation history on its own terms. It is after all, Mary’s free, autonomous and unequivocal “yes” that made the incarnation possible.


Going back even further, Irigaray holds that the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is one that is worth holding onto. To suggest that Mary was conceived as a product of sexual intercourse but without sin suggests that that holy love making between a man and a woman, in this case Mary’s parents, is at least in principle possible. In a tradition that has often held sexual intercourse to be an expedient brought about as a result of the fall, this is an important suggestion.[4]








Irigaray is best known for her emphasis on sexual difference. “Sexual difference” she argues, “is probably the issue of our time which could be our ‘salvation’ if we thought it through.”[5] Sexual difference is important for establishing a genuinely dialogical culture as opposed to one that is founded upon an abstract universal – usually read as male –



Society begins with the couple, but not in the sense that many Christians have argued as a natural immediacy. The family is not an undifferentiated unit. Love is labour, requiring mediation and transcendence. On this score I feel that Irigaray’s description of John Paul II’s theology of the family as a “naïve paganism” is entirely appropriate.[6]


But her insistence upon the priority of sexual difference is also, in a sense, strategic. How can we approach the question of the other without considering the most basic of differences by which human society is structured? [7] This emphasis has led many Anglo-American feminists to accuse Irigaray of the sin of essentialism.


The feminist academy made its presence felt at the conference in some interesting tensions between the accepted rules of academic discourse and personal convictions exemplified not only by the bracketing of the question of actual faith, but also with regards to the feminist doctrine of essentialism.


Many regular participants displayed a subtle ambivalence here. Confessional commitments often found their way into presentations as a sort insistent but half-embarrassed footnote to papers. Similarly, a number of presenters found themselves having to perform all sorts of circumlocations in order not to appear guilty of essentialism, while also making it clear that they found the doctrine to be extremely unhelpful.


Indeed, the unanimous prize for best question of the conference went to a young American Ph.D. student who asked Irigaray whether feminism has compelled women to speak, regardless of the cost, rather than remain silent.








One of the most interesting developments of the conference involved what someone called a shift from an ethics of sexual difference to an ethics of religious difference.


Inter-faith dialogue was also an inadvertent feature of the conference on many levels. From the Hindu woman who kindly corrected an overly romantic account of Tantra to the young Muslim woman from Oman with the full black hijab and hennaed hands who interrogate me about the compatibility of Irigaray’s approach with confessional Christianity. (I in term interrogated her about the openness of Islam to the eschatological.)


But more importantly, the question of inter-faith dialogue had become a theme of Irigaray’s own journey where her study of Yoga and Buddhism brought her back to Christianity with a fresh appreciation of her own tradition.


A number of people questioned the appropriateness of this. But I was happy to be able to defend Irigaray on this point, informing them that according to Raimon Panikkar’s reflections upon inter-religious dialogue, and as Gerard Hall discussed on Sunday, authentic inter-religious dialogue also requires an intra-religious dialogue.


Using the language of Joachim of Fiore, Irigaray is fond of talking about a new age of the Holy Spirit. It is appropriate that such an age is also the age of encounter with other religious traditions, of inter-religious dialogue. Christianity has emphasized Christology at the expense of its underdeveloped Pneumatology for too long.





Returning to the problem of essentialism, two papers by male participant however sought a way out of the impasse. One by an Israel scholar found a way forward in Levinas’ priority of ethics over ontology. The other paper was my own.



I argue that the shape of ones theology depends substantially upon the underlying metaphysical assumptions that one brings to such an enterprise. In looking at the development of Christian theology I find it a useful heuristic to identify two types of metaphysical orientation, by which I mean models for understanding the whole.


Put simply I would describe them as a metaphysics of the past, and a metaphysics of the future, as an attempt to describe where one looks for an understanding of the order of creation.


Was creation established in its perfection from the beginning or is such perfection yet to be realized?


In other worlds, do we find the ideal God given order of things in the already created reality or is it still coming into being, yet to be fully realized.


This also correlates with two responses to the question of whether God would have become incarnate if Adam had not sinned?


Put another way we could ask, is difference something to be overcome or is it part of the very process of creation itself?




Taking a phenomenological approach we find that going back through the layers of interpretation and tradition Christianity has its source in the Easter experience.


Those who encountered the Risen Christ experienced the sort of forgiveness and reconciliation, wholeness and peace that only God can offer.


The reign of God that Jesus proclaimed in his earthly ministry had become fully realised in the risen Christ.


And yet, while they experienced Jesus as being in the realm of the divine – in God and of God – he was still recognisable as the man they knew.


This is significant. His uniqueness was not swallowed up in the great ocean of the divine but preserved. His humanity was not compromised through its identity with God but sublated / raised / exalted to it highest level.


Also central to the Easter experience was the conviction that the fullness of life that Jesus now enjoyed in God was also being offered to us. Throughout the New Testament it is affirmed that through baptism we are “clothed in Christ” (Gal. 3:27) in the hope that we might also share in his resurrection. (Rom 6:4) We become daughters and sons in the Son, “sharers in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). In the risen Christ the fullness of humanity and our own divine destiny was revealed. 


So at the heart of the Christian experience is an eschatological revelation and insight. The definitive revelation of the divine is also a revelation of the fullness of humanity.


As expressed by Edward Schillebeeckx: “we do not have a pre-existing definition of humanity — indeed for Christians it is not only a future, but an eschatological reality”.[8] John Macquarrie similarly argues, “humanity is something unfinished, even now coming into being”.[9]


For Christians, therefore, Jesus in his humanity mediates and orients us towards our divinity.


(I had the opportunity to ask Irigaray if she considered that her own work contributed to recovery of the eschatological imagination. Her response was yes, but with difficulty.)



This heuristic can help to make sense of two very different responses to the fact of sexual difference. My own sense is that a concern for sexual difference only becomes essentialism when viewed from the perspective of a metaphysics of the past whereby the God given order established in the beginning lays down the norms for us to follow.


From an eschatological perspective, however, difference far from becoming destiny becomes the very condition of transcendence, of matter becoming spirit. The work of creation and salvation is the work of differentiation (and mediation) in which we, in the image of the creator, are called to be co-creators (and co-saviours).

[1] Luce Irigaray, Luce Irigaray. Key Writings, (London and New York: Continuum, 2004) 145.

[2] Ibid., 150.

[3] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Feminist Hermeneutics, Scriptural Authority, and Religious Experience: The Case of the Imago Dei and Gender Equality”, in Radical Pluralism and Truth: David Tracy and the Hermeneutics of Religion, eds. Werner G. Jeanrond and Jennifer L. Rilke. (New York: Crossroad, 1991) 103.

[4] See Luce Irigaray, I Love to You: Sketch for a Felicity Within History, trans. Alison Martin, (New York and London: Routledge, 1996) 140-141.

[5] Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993) 5.

[6] Luce Irigaray, Between East and West. From Singularity to Community. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002) 118.

[7] In her essay “The Question of the Other”, Irigaray describes her first theoretical task as extricating “the two from the one, the two from the many, the other from the same . . . suspending the authority of the One”. Luce Irigaray, “The Question of the Other”, Yale French Studies 87. (1995) 12.

[8] Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord. (New York: Crossroad, 1980)  731.

[9] John Macquarrie, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought. (London: SCM, 1990), 384.