Feminism Intellectualized

'Radical Wisdom' is wise, but its academic wordiness limits its accessibility

In a recent book, feminist writer Elizabeth Johnson declared that the divine is neither male nor female, stating emphatically that "God is simple."

Having never met the Almighty, I'm not especially qualified to question Johnson's claim, but I will say that the books about God and other spiritual matters that have resonated the most with me have been written simply. Direct, down-to-earth and generally succinct, these books often exhibit a calm authority and an oddly porous quality to the words that seem to allow something of the writer's spiritual presence to filter through.

A new book, Radical Wisdom: A Feminist Mystical Theology, by Tucson writer Beverly J. Lanzetta, suggests that women can find liberation and wholeness within, through mystical experiences at the core of their being. Drawing on the spiritual teachings of St. Teresa of Avila and other female mystics, Lanzetta, research associate at the UA's Southwest Institute for Research on Women, attempts to chart an interior path toward healing the psychic wounds in women, and the often atrophied feminine side of men. While I would hesitate to call it radical, there is certainly wisdom to be found here, but it's difficult to discern amid the interminable thicket of strident preaching and overly intellectualized verbiage.

Lest anyone think that the women's movement has outlived its usefulness, Lanzetta writes that women worldwide still face an incredibly high and intolerable level of abuse. Citing statistics from various government agencies, she tells us that rape (during the mid-'90s, in Rwanda alone, nearly a half-million women were sexually assaulted), forced prostitution, genital mutilation and murder by male partners are disturbingly common. Even in the United States, where women over the past century have made tremendous strides, women's wages continue to lag behind men's, and 3-4 million women are battered each year.

Lanzetta affirms that while such maltreatment creates deep physical, psychological and economic wounds, the venom of oppression causes its greatest harm by attacking women's spirits.

"What harms a woman's soul," she says, "reverberates in her physical, emotional and mental spheres, generating suffering in every area of her life." Writing that too little effort has been expended studying the spiritual dimensions of gender abuse, Lanzetta tells us that the key to a woman's healing can be found within the damaged soul itself, where there is always an intimate connection with God. "By turning inward," she says, "to their mystical core, women tap into deep spiritual reserves that identify and heal the roots of their oppression."

Noting that a woman's spiritual quest is often impeded by the exclusivity of male-dominated religions, Lanzetta proposes an alternative spiritual path, via feminina, that reframes spiritual experience in feminine language, assists women in unlearning destructive, culturally engrained self-concepts, presents a more benevolent view of God than those of Western, sin-infused theologies, views women's bodies and sexual expressions as manifestations of the divine and places social action on an equal footing with spiritual attainments.

The most instructive part of the book is Lanzetta's study of St. Teresa of Avila, a fascinating individual, truly ahead of her time, whose transformative interior experiences found rich expression in the world. Born at the close of the High Middle Ages, a period that witnessed an unparalleled volume of writings by female mystics and heightened use of feminine spiritual imagery by mystics of both sexes, Teresa founded a number of Carmelite monasteries and wrote many books elucidating the mystical path.

Lanzetta writes that Teresa and others like her were not proto-feminists in the contemporary sense, but insists that they would have recognized the mystical undertones in the modern women's movement.

"Were they alive today," she writes, "I have no doubt they would be ardent champions of the rights of women as intrinsic to the soul's freedom, an act of bravery commanded by the very God they loved."

Indeed, Teresa, at the height of the Inquisition, stood up to male prelates who frequently denounced her inner experiences as satanic, encouraging women and men to give themselves over to meditative soul searching.

This book, which would be more effective pared down to a journal article focusing on the experiences of female mystics, is essentially the recasting in feminist terms of the Perennial Philosophy, the ancient view, found at the heart of all religions, that beneath life's transient surface lies a more substantive reality. Lanzetta makes a deeply felt case that the road to women's freedom lies within, but her relentless diatribes against patriarchal malfeasance, undoubtedly warranted and cathartic, fail to set a contemplative tone.

However, the biggest problem with this book is its limited accessibility. With an unreserved obeisance to the tedious rhetoric of academia, it will play well in graduate seminars, but, sadly, won't make a significant impact anywhere else.

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