Von Balthasar: On Sex and Women

Alright, time for a weird one. One of the things about metaphor in the Christian tradition – and I suppose probably elsewhere as well – is that the material form of the metaphor carries meaning alongside the primary metaphorical idea. We’ve talked about this previously with Maggie Mae Fish and the book of Hosea – the prophet Hosea has an unfaithful wife, and his continued faithfulness to his wife despite her infidelities is a metaphor for the unfailing love of God for His fickle people. The material form of that metaphor is part of the meaning: God is not represented in this metaphor as the woman, but as the man, as the superior partner in the marriage. The metaphor relies on a very patriarchal worldview, and it legitimises and sustains that patriarchy alongside the main thrust of the story – all the stuff about God.

It’s therefore important to read religious metaphors backwards – almost counter-intuitively – and ask about the material conditions that are underwritten by theological metaphor. How much of the example carries back through into real life? For instance, given that the people of Israel (and humans more generally) are eternally unfaithful, given that we’re always straying away from God in one manner or another, is it fair to read that back into the material form and suggest that women will always be unfaithful to their husbands? Most people would say that’s not the point of the metaphor, that it’s reading against the grain and finding meaning that’s just not there – and that process is really what’s under examination. What are the terms by which we make that decision? How far does the material form of a metaphor serve as normative for our everyday lives? And are there conditions under which we have to abandon a metaphor simply because its form is no longer adequate?

Keep those questions in mind as we turn to a passage in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s A Theology of History. We talked about the Swiss Catholic’s book last week – we talked about his theology around time and waiting – and this week, we’re talking about these two little passages on femininity:

“The church and the soul, as they receive the seed of the word and its meaning, can do nothing but await it in feminine openness and readiness, not struggling or stiffening or hardening, not trying to make any answering masculine contribution, but simply surrendering in the dark, conceiving and bearing in the dark, not knowing what, or how much, has been conceived and brought to birth. This state of unknowing … is the necessary foundation for anything that could, within the faith, deserve the name of Christian gnosis or knowledge.

Woman is formed out of man, and in the last analysis the wife is, in marriage, formed and molded by the husband. Through what he gives her she becomes a mother; her body and spirit ripen from within to that which they are meant to be. She is the protecting body and womb to man physically, but he is the womb that contains her spiritually, where dwells and grows the image of her true essence. The Christian and the Church attain to their true essence, their eidos, which exists already in Christ the Bridegroom, insofar as they receive and keep within themselves the will of the Father, the seed of His Incarnate Word.”

What a sexy passage. Immediately we can see that this is a metaphor that works in both directions. The human example of a marriage between a man and a woman serves as an example of the relationship between God and the church, or between God and the believer. That same spiritual relationship then works in reverse, as a justification of the idea that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and as a justification of the idea that in such a marriage, the man should serve as the spiritual head of the family, as “the womb that contains [the woman] spiritually.” These ideas are mutually reinforcing – they feed into each other, each serving as the other’s evidence. Such interlocking makes it difficult to disassemble the ideas – you can’t take apart one without seeming to threaten the other.

Say, for instance, that you thought the gender dynamics in those passages were bullshit. Say you thought that they were patriarchal and heteronormative, that they insisted on the supremacy of the man and excluded gay relationships from the bounds of their conceptual universe. If you critique the metaphor for its gender and sexual dynamics, the interlacing of ideas means that your attack on one half of the equation will be seen as an attack on the other. An attack on the patriarchy will be perceived as an attack on the headship of God – not only because you are attacking a system that God allegedly set in place, but more specifically because denying the headship of the man in a marriage is seen as denying the metaphor that is drawn from it. Denying the headship of the man in a marriage is also denying the headship of God over the individual. If you’re not religious, you’re maybe fine with that – maybe you’re quite happy to abandon the faith as irredeemable. But for Christians who wish to remain Christian but who also think that patriarchy is just quite straightforwardly not part of God’s design, it’s a trickier road. The interlacing of the parts of the metaphor make it difficult to have one but not the other.

And I’ve toyed around with some strategies for pushing at this sort of metaphor – you know, I think you can really get inside these things and queer the heck out of them. That’s what I was doing with The Sexy Bride of Christ – essentially causing a collision between the two parts of the metaphor, asking what it means for a male theologian to have a womanly soul. But alongside that subversive approach, there’s also an opportunity to articulate further metaphors out of all the other different kinds of sexual act. The example given by von Balthasar is very focused on reproductive sex – which makes sense, he’s a Catholic – and I don’t even think we need to get rid of it in its entirety. The idea of pregnancy as a metaphor for relationship with God I think is really interesting, really potent. The idea of the Virgin Mary as an archetype for humanity – there’s room for that in our thought. But we can also supplement it with additional metaphors. What does gay sex say about our relationship with God? What spiritual truth is signified by a hand job? Von Balthasar’s out here talking about how sperm represents God’s Word – we’re already talking about the theology of bodily fluids. We should take that as an opportunity.


  1. […] We see this process of self-definition in this week’s text, which – we’re going to handle a little different to normal. The author of this book asked to remain anonymous (he didn’t ask me personally, just – you know, in general, it’s an anonymously published text), so in the spirit of that request, for now I’m not even going to tell you what the book is. I’ll say that it’s the last of our 20th century Catholic texts – after this, we move to writings from the Orthodox church. I can also say that it was originally published in French, and it’s got an afterword from the almost-Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar, who we’ve been discussing a bunch over recent weeks – he wrote books like The Christian and Anxiety and A Theology of History. […]


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