Book Review – Out of Depths: Women’s Experience of Evil and Salvation

Out of Depths. Women’s Experience of Evil and Salvation
Ivone Gebara.
Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002. 211 pp. [3]

Ivone Gebara is one of the leading feminist theologians from Brazil and Latin America. She has given most of her life to the cause of the poor, especially to poor women. She is known for her eco-theo-feminist analysis and her creative understandings of transcendence and immanence. In her most recent book, Gebara offers a feminist perspective on evil and salvation, which no reader not have a strong reaction to her argument, whatever the reaction may be.  She proposes to work with a broad understanding of evil by focusing in the evil that occurs within the limits of the household of poor women, a central place in their lives and where evil goes unnoticed, silenced and forgotten. From this location, she deals with unsurpassed paradoxes and utter contradictions of life reaching out for women in various places of the world. In order to do that, first she has to dismantle the evil that is purported by a patriarchal society that fiercely dominates women’s discourses and practices by using: a) universal philosophical and metaphysical binary categories understanding women as a subsystem of male dominance, as a dependent device of men’s natural/essential condition; b) theological concepts and doctrinal dogmas that always understand women in a subservient role within the binary category of prostitute/saint, where male categories of evil control their feelings, thoughts, beliefs, bodies, and sexualities; c) social/economical categories that places women in powerless locations and associate them with lesser values; and d) cultural predicaments that diminish not only their potential but their dignity as well.

Gebara advocates a theological anthropology as essential “to establish relationships of justice and solidarity” (8). Her theological anthropology is formed into phenomenological lenses, understood mainly from Paul Ricouer’s works. The tools she uses to approach reality phenomenological are “the concept of gender, literature, testimonial evidence and certain contemporary theological interpretation” (11). She believes that women’s experiences of evil are different from men’s experiences, which reflect directly the way any normalization and categorization of the concepts of evil are constructed. Men’s evil is monolithic, universally considered and never pay attention to the many faces evil has in different realities and situations. For Gebara, evil has to be thought of in the plural. There are evils, not a single evil that appear in multilayered and multi-structured realities.

As a consequence of this notion of evil, the notion of salvation that has also to be redefined in feminist perspectives. Knowing very well the reality of poor women and their situation of daily lack and of unspeakable voids, Gebara knows how a simple action or a small object can vividly transform the life of a woman. She boldly affirms that a radio or even a dress can become salvation for these women. Her notion of mini-salvation will prompt strong reactions against her and she might as well be accused of reductionism, of aiming higher with the Christian message, and of confounding transcendence with immanence. It is a hard concept to grasp, especially in the opulent and obscenely wealthy countries of North America. Gebara’s notion of salvation is, for poor people not a reduction at all, but instead, an irreducible approach to the concrete love of God in a reality combined in a contradictory way, with a deep sense of gratitude. Thus, salvation becomes irreducible by means of reduction.

A key word for Gebara is relatedness. Human life is not a set of isolated compartments but a whole system interconnected, interdependent, interwoven, where one thing is related to the other and nothing stands outside of this web of interrelatedness, reminding us of Hegel’s notion of an integrated system reconciled with its opposites. From this perspective, evil is related to good, and evil, connected with salvation, just as social evil is related with domestic violence, ecology, grace and human possibilities. This point can raise many questions and her perspective runs the risk of conflating evil with good without the marking off of its boundaries and differences, by possibly reifying one in the name of the other. On the other hand, she does not let evil go unnoticed or unnamed in her book and by mentioning evil’s many names she does not let it simply be the flip side of good without any ethical assertion, that is, a continuous call for transformation.

She is again controversial when she says that women are not only victims of evil but also perpetrators of evil. Evil is in all of us, and we all reproduce it in every sphere of our lives. Nonetheless, she makes clear the differences of the consequences of evil perpetrated by women and by men. Another controversial issue she addresses is the uniqueness of the cross of Jesus, with a fierce critique, she admonishes us to interpret the cross in the plural sense, as crosses, since there are so many people dying on the cross of humiliation, poverty, and powerlessness every day around the world. At the end, she offers us a God who is relational not totally other a God who she defines through a new metaphor, namely, “esse-diversity.” A God/mystery defined by its esse-diversity functions through a plural discourse in the richness of our lives, a God in the world and the world in God.

My main critique with this book is the lack of a detailed analysis of sexual violence in the domestic milieu that is a shocking evil committed daily against women by men, and unfortunately, Gebara does not engage such evil in a serious analysis, recognizing the deep marks it leaves on the lives of so many women around the world.

To finish, let me propose a hermeneutical tool to read Gebara’s book: the notion of excess. Excess can be too little or too much. In her book, we are constantly reminded of the abusive control of men’s authority over the lack of possibilities/decisions of women. Men always have too much and women always live in lack.  Men’s excess (too much) is women’s lack (too little). No wonder Gebara sees in a dress, the excess of gratuity in the midst of an unspeakable lack. Moreover, by letting the cross of Jesus carry too much meaning, women’s suffering becomes meaningless. She claims a relational God, a God who is neither too much nor too little, a God of diversity, a web God, a God who connects us all together. By exposing us to the excess (too much) of violence, we are faced with the lack of grace (too little). This binary excess also blows up when we listen to the daily experiences of poor women. Reality becomes too real, almost a simulacra. Evil and salvation live in raw, nuanced and confused ways in this too real reality of excess and our task as theologians and religious thinkers is to figure out the measurements of the excessive, deconstruct its predicaments, discover their pseudonymous names and see both its possibilities and impossibilities.

[3] This book review was published at USQR: Union Seminary Quarterly Review Volume 58 Numbers 1-2, (2004): 216-218.

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