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Feminism, Transhumanism, and Theological Anthropology

Charles Taliaferro


What is Anselmian theology?

Professor and Chair of Philosophy Department, St. Olaf College
August 14, 2015

At first, the three items in the title of this short essay seem like strange bedfellows or, to alter the imagery slightly, they seem like an odd ménage a trois. But I suggest that theological anthropology in the context of Christian, Anslemian (or Perfect Being) theology can provide some help in addressing some forms of feminism and transhumanism.

The rationale for this essay is that Anselmian theology is not antiquarian, but well suited to taking on two contemporary “hot topics.”

(I should add that this essay is partly on assignment; my co-editor of the Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology, Joshua Farris, proposed I tackle feminism and transhumanism. Not the easiest task, Joshua!)

Being Perfect

By Anselmian or Perfect Being theology I am referring to theistic views of God that give center place to God being perfect or unsurpassably excellent. A revival of Anselmian theology was spearheaded in the 1980s by T.V. Morris in such books as Anselmian Explorations. Anslemian theological anthropology makes values (perfection) central to understanding the Godhead and thus, Anselmian theology gives a central role to values when thinking about what it is to be in the image of God.

Feminism and Christian Philosophy

In terms of feminism, I suggest that an Anselmian understanding of God has the resources to respond to the critique of Christian philosophy of religion launched recently by Pamela Susan Anderson (from an interview published by the Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion; available for download here).

A Patriarchal God?

Anderson contends that by giving supreme perfection a central role, Christian theists wind up with a thoroughly patriarchal concept of God. In the interview, Anderson claims that “the hard core” of contemporary philosophy of God that sees God as perfect is patriarchal. Anderson claims:

Giving supreme perfection, and authority, to the ideal of reason ensures the man has his ultimate gender ideal: the omni-perfect Father/God. Often there is still no awareness among philosophers of religion that their ideal is problematic; and this is re-enforced by divine, omni-perfect attributes; the latter serve as the core concepts and central topics in philosophy of religion. So, this patriarchal ideal ensures the dominant authority of men who remain blinded by their vision of perfection, unaware of the implications for the “rationality” of their beliefs concerning women, as well as non-patriarchal men.

Marginalizing Alternative Philosophies?

She links Christian philosophical work on God as perfect with a philosophy that denigrates those practicing philosophy in a fashion that gives a more central role to desire, eros, and passion (as opposed to reason) and marginalizes women and non-heterosexuals. She contends that theistic traditionalists may appear to be appealing to impartiality but this appeal is unconvincing.

To be fair, the deliberate sex-blindness of Christian philosophy of religion may have been assumed as the way to be unbiased. However, this can no longer be a valid assumption in philosophy with the intervention by feminist and queer theorists. In excluding from ‘reason’ questions of bodily matters and of non-straight categories, traditional philosophy of religion turned gay philosophers to feminist philosophy of religion. Today women, whether heterosexual or lesbian, gain a great deal of new insight for feminist philosophy of religion from gay men and other male feminists!

Divine Perfection and the Problem of Evil?

In the same interview, she advances the problem of evil over against an Anselmian concept of God.

If God is omni-perfect, why has half of the human race been treated unequally? Whether we think of female fetuses being aborted precisely because they are female, not male, or think of any sex crime, the legacy of patriarchal rule over women and non-patriarchal men leaves a wake of inexplicable injustice. ‘Why do the innocent suffer’ might be given a philosophical justification, but when it comes to females who suffer for no other reason than they are born female, any ‘rational’ defence gives an additional reason for patriarchal man to justify his gratuitous violence against innocent women which, in light of human history, will always be out of proportion to the rest of humanity.

Responding to the Feminist Critique

In reply, I suggest three points.

1. Using Anselmian theology to critique patriarcy.

First, if it is the case that those who profess to subscribe to belief in God as maximally perfect advance not just imperfect concepts of what is good, but downright oppressive and unjust concepts that are used to dominate women (or anyone) then surely those persons are in profound error. Worse, they insult the God they claim to extoll. On this point, it would seem that feminists have good motivation to accept an Anselmian concept of God to critique patriarchy.

Perfect being theology (in its essence) focuses on great-making attributes and insofar as the attributes are found to be poisonous and reflecting human cruelty and bias, they are anathema. Anderson appears to assume (or to depict) an Anselmian theology as not simply holding that God is maximally perfect, but holding that maximal perfection includes God’s favoring male supremacy (more specifically, heterosexual male supremacy). But of course the commitment to thinking of God as perfect commits one to scrutinizing one’s understanding of perfection and vigorously rejecting unworthy, harmful, repugnant misuses of the ideal of perfection. If a value-neutral concept of God were at the heart of philosophical theology (perhaps mixed in with theistic voluntarism in which God could make rape obligatory if God commanded it to be so), Anderson’s critique would have more traction.

2. Welcoming the feminist stance toward evil.

Second, Anderson’s description of the problem of evil seems exactly the problem as it should be stated (from an Anselmian perspective). Given that God is perfect, why is there oppression, harm, wrongful inequalities, and so on? These ought to be seen as repugnant to God. Without going into my preferred approach as an Anselmian theist to the problem of evil, I simply note that the feminist stance of Anderson is far more welcome than forms of naturalism that make oppression, etc, part of the very nature of reality, perhaps even fixed by deterministic laws. On the latter viewpoint, evil is part of the natural course of things and not something that is opposed to the very nature and purpose of creation.

3. Assessing matters of sexual orientation.

Third, Anselmian theology is well positioned to assess matters of sexual orientation. An Anselmian is committed to thinking of human persons as made in the image of God and called into God’s likeness. If Anderson adopted Anselmian theism, she could argue that being homosexual is part and parcel of what can be part of a good life of human flourishing that would be willed by a perfect Creator and Redeemer.

I am not myself making that point here. I am simply registering that, contrary to Anderson’s suggestion, understanding God as perfect does not ipso facto make the concept of God patriarchal or the property of heterosexual males. An Anselmian perspective that is shared by Christian theists is one that is helpful for reflecting on created goods. It beckons us to think about the extent to which we use creation (including how we treat our sexuality) in a way that is worthy of the love and goodness of God.

A More Perfect Human: Perfect Being Theology and Transhumanism

Let us move to transhumanism. This is a movement that is somewhat complex, but in general it advocates using technology to transform human persons into forms of life in which we so extend our capabilities (physical, cognitive, affective, etc.) that we might no longer be human. How might an Anselmian theological anthropology assess this movement?

I suggest that there are three elements that are important from an Anselmian point of view.

1. Be sensitive to the human good.

First, Anslemian theism is sensitive to how values are appropriate to different kinds of beings. What makes a good human being is different from what makes a good whale. Much progress in terms of our moral development as a species has come about through extending our concept of what it is to be a human being, moving from beyond only recognizing certain males as fully human to recognizing all humans, regardless of gender, age, or ethnicity as human. The transhumanist goal of going beyond being human courts a dangerous elitism in which ‘humanity’ may be seen as something to be left behind and not worthy of those of us who truly seek self-perfection. Those of us in the Christian tradition have an additional reason for revering humanity as we believe that the God of perfection became incarnate as a human being, calling us to reclaim the original blessing given to us in creation (Christ as the second Adam).

2. We are neither beast nor god.

A second point is worth noting, to the effect that while we should be loath to denigrate our humanity we should also be highly suspicious of human supremacy. As noted in response to Anderson’s feminism, just as believing God to be perfect does not entail any kind of patriarchal perspective or male supremacy, an Anselmian perspective does not entail any assertion of human supremacy.

Traditionally, Christianity sees humans as uniquely made in God’s image, but this is (or should be seen as) a call to serve as the stewards of creation, not as a license to treat the rest of creation merely as an object of use. Moreover, as C.S. Lewis has observed, it is conceivable that God has made and sustains in creation all sorts of creatures that are nonhumans and yet are image bearers of God.

So, there is some reason for Christians not to treat our humanity as the highest value imaginable or to rule out that image bearers of God might exist with even greater affective, cognitive, physical virtues that we possess. So, while the first point involves cautioning us on taking too low a view of humanity, my second point is that we should resist taking on too high a view.

3. Love thy neighbor, maximally.

Third, a maximally perfect being calls us to maximally live up to the best of our abilities to the ethical order of loving our neighbor. In light of the teachings of Jesus, this means caring for the disposed and the most vulnerable among us. This would mean that the use of technology to enhance human powers should be given primacy to repairing those of us who are damaged and impaired, rather than to give primacy to the goals of the transhumanists who envision developing elite persons that may evolve beyond our species.

Purging Oppression from Our Concepts of Perfection: Responding to Feminism and Transhumanism

In wrapping up this post, the movements of feminism and transhumanism compel us to examine our use of concepts such as human being, male, female, being in the image of God, and so on. Those of us in the Anselmian tradition are especially keen (and in this we share a value that Anderson does) to purge our concepts of perfection (divine and/or human) of sexism and other forms of oppression and domination—whether this be a domination of males over females, or the privileging of elite persons who seek to transcend humanity while their fellow human beings suffer deprivation, or a ruthless domination of human beings over other species.

 More Information about The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology

Philosophers and theologians address the relationship between body and soul and its implications for theological anthropology, interacting with cognitive science, biological evolution, psychology, and sociology. Reflecting these exciting new developments, The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology is a resource for philosophers and theologians, students and scholars, interested in the constructive, critical exploration of a theology of human persons. Throughout this collection of newly authored contributions, key themes are addressed: human agency and grace, the soul, sin and salvation, Christology, glory, feminism, the theology of human nature, and other major themes in theological anthropology in historic as well as contemporary contexts.

Click here for a full list of contributors and essays.

Theological Anthropology

Reviews

‘An invigoratingly diverse collection of essays focused on the Christian understanding of human nature in general and its bearing the image of God in particular; it would serve as an excellent introduction to the developing interest shown by analytic theology in these and related topics.’
T.J. Mawson, University of Oxford, UK

‘This Ashgate volume, brilliantly crafted by first-rate scholars from multiple disciplines, is a paragon of excellence for research companions. Rigorous, well informed, and refreshingly insightful, it is a tour de force of theological anthropology!’
Chad Meister, Bethel College, USA

‘Excellent in breadth and depth of treatment of relevant topics, with an international group of contributors, senior scholars and scholars newer to their fields but already published therein, this is a superb contribution to the fresh interest in theological anthropology, which it expands, develops, and encourages.’
Keith E. Yandell, University of Wisconsin – Madison, USA

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