Heart of Flesh: A Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Heart of Flesh: A Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men

  1. Review

    Joan D. Chittister is a Benedictine sister who is executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality in Erie, Pennsylvania. The title of her book is taken from Ezekiel 36:26: "1 will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." I found that reading her book was similar to what it must be like to receive a heart transplant -with gratitude, but not without considerable pain.

    Her book is the culmination of a lifetime of inquiry and study, as a woman and as a social scientist, pursuing the question, "What is femini~t spirituality and what does it mean to both women and men? In answering her question she develops the theme, which is common to each of the sixteen chapters, of comparing and contrasting the perspective and values of a patriarchal social system and the perspective and values of a feminist world view.

    A patriarchal social system is any society is built on four "interlocking principles: dualism, hierarchy, domination, and essential inequality." Its foundation is the biological difference between male and female. On this foundation, Chittister writes, patriarchy imposes hierarchy on the differences, which "gives hierarchy dominative power and justifies all of it on the theory of intrinsic inequality. A result of this system is that the lives of men become focused on "independence, status, efficiency, prestige and power." And the spiritual lives of men are characterized by an emphasis on "ritual and law, institutions and theories, dogmas rather than feelings, law rather than justice." It is her conviction that a patriarchal system distorts and cramps the human development of men and is in conflict with the life and teachings of Jesus. She has an unusual and delightful interpretation of the meaning of the "virgin birth." She writes, "The Jesus born of a women without the agency of a man defies in that very generation all the dualism, hierarchy, domination, and inequality practiced in his name."

    In describing the perspective and values of a feminist world-view, Chittister believes it is important to understand that the words female, feminine, and feminist are not identical in meaning. Female is a designation of gender. Feminine describes dimensions of life commonly considered to be "essentially female." For example it is considered "feminine" to cry. Feminism is a "way of seeing" that is independent of patriarchal assumptions about both female and the feminine. Recognizing the biological difference between men and women, feminism assumes the inherent equality of all human beings. She writes, "Respect for otherness, equality , mutuality, interdependence, and nurturance are basic components of a feminist world view." The feminist world-view changes the configurations of the social world from a pyramid to a circle. She writes, "Feminism regards the human race as one humanity in two genders and sets out to make the fullness of humanity available to both of them." The perspective and values of feminism are available to both women and men if "we will simply go deep enough, think freshly enough, risk bravely enough – for a ‘heart of flesh’ and a soul of steel."

    Her book is devoted to helping the reader develop a feminine spirituality .She is clear that spirituality does not mean "private piety," a "panacea for human pain" or a "substitute for critical conscience." She also rejects the common dualism between the private and public dimensions of faith. Spirituality, she writes, "is about developing the courage, the determination, to commit ourselves to living all the dimensions of life with awareness and strength, with depth and quality."

    In a chapter entitled Pride and Humility, Chittister suggests that pride is patriarchy "played out" to remind everyone who is really "in charge." She is convinced that The Rule of Benedict, developed in the patriarchal society of the Roman empire in the sixth century CE, "with its stress on feminist concepts in the face of a culture committed to male dominance" may be a model for developing a feminist spirituality today. She explores the twelve degrees of humility, the Rule teaches, that lead not only to self- development but also to community consciousness. Humility, according to the twelve degrees, is involved in our "relationship to God, our openness to people, our expectation in life and our attitudes toward others." Practicing the twelve degrees, she writes, "would turn both spirituality and life upside down."

    This book is highly recommended for both women and men. Most women will find it affirming and enhancing. Most men, like this reviewer, will find it painful but healing.

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