Theologies That Cannot Be: A Response to the RSP Interview with Dr. Caroline Blyth

I am an admirer of Dr. Caroline Blyth’s work, most especially for her commitment to Religious Studies’ “potential… as a means of cultural critique and change.” It is a practical focus badly needed in a discipline prone to building research foci around its own definition. I was somewhat discomforted, however, to hear her in the interview adopt Rukmini Callimachi’s term, the “theology of rape.”

What disturbs me about this phrase is that, once Dr. Blyth explains it (“justifying rape through the use of religious justification, religious terms, religious rituals…”) we all somehow understand it as a meaningful expression (indeed, an “evocative” one). In truth, however, this phrase, with its implicit suggestion that one can simultaneously engage in the rape of a human being and pursue the knowledge of God, should be semantically unparsable—a colorless, green idea sleeping furiously. “Theology of rape” should be a contradiction in terms.

When it does not immediately strike us so, we must ask ourselves what strange tension we are holding in our thought to make these terms superficially compatible, and as I ask myself this, I note something interesting—while theologies of rape are diverse, theologians of rape are almost invariably men. Some statistics are certainly at work here, since theology is still a field in which men are more heavily represented, but this in itself is a perplexing point worthy of our attention, since, in modern America at least, it is only our daughters that we teach to be Christians.

You know what I mean; just turn on any children’s television program, walk down any toy aisle, or listen carefully to the comments of teachers and fathers and little league coaches. We teach girls to be deferent and collaborative. We teach them to be nurturing and self-sacrificing. We teach them to be obedient. Our little boys we teach to insist on rights and respect. We teach them to be ready for confrontation. We teach them to know what they want and to get it. Both of these lists of virtues are familiar to those versed in Christian culture. The first comes from the Bible, where God enjoins upon us “lowliness… meekness… longsuffering” (Ephesians 4:2), “patience… kindness… gentleness” (Galatians 5:23), humility (Romans 12:14–16), and submission (Titus 3:1). The second comes from what Blyth refers to as the “godly masculinity” of men’s ministries, which uphold the ideal of a man who is “strong… powerful… heroic… authoritative… assertive… competitive… sexually aggressive.”

Taken alone and in moderation, none of those traits need necessarily be an evil, and each can be a positive good in a man (or a woman) of goodwill, but it cannot be denied that the general tenor of the second list is at odds with the first. Thus divided, there is a significant conflict between the virtues of “godly masculinity”—which are simply the virtues of the West’s hegemonic masculinity—and the virtues enjoined in Christian teaching and, for that matter, the teachings of most other religions as well.

I am far from the first person to make this observation, and I am indebted in it to my own research, centering on what Sarah Morrigan has called “the Oxford Goddess Revival” . In the 1970s, a group of young Oxonians brought together streams of thought from Guénonian Traditionalism, Marian devotionalism, and lesbian separatism to craft a unique and multifaceted theology. Among their teachings was a critique of contemporary Western masculinity as being negatively defined by the rejection of traits coded as feminine, which, in our culture, include the religious virtues of humility, meekness, silence, submission, charity, piety, and self-sacrificial love. Masculinity, in their view, was an apostasy from the Perennial Tradition—a rebellion against a necessarily feminine God.

One need not go quite so far as those ingenious young women, however, to observe that, within the context of contemporary Western culture, the term “godly masculinity” is one that should ring hollow and incomprehensible in our ears, just like the “theology of rape,” with which it is intimately connected. It is precisely in the knowledge that this term, too, has the superficial appearance of a meaning in our society that I am not surprised when, as the interview turns to the oft-neglected topic of male victims of gendered violence, we find the perpetrators to be, once again, almost entirely men. Ideas, as Richard Weaver said, have consequences, and the consequence of these pernicious oxymorons has been that acculturation to violence is a gendered phenomenon (as a quick survey of a Toys Я Us aisle or a Saturday morning cartoon lineup will once again confirm); gendered violence is an inevitable result of this.

Every discipline has both power and responsibility to contribute to the dismantling of the Patriarchy by declaring its valorization of avarice, egotism, and violence to be wrong. The particular duty and power of religious studies and theology, is to point out that that valorization is hypocritical—that the culture of Patriarchy is itself inimical to the values of the sacred social order from which it claims its authority and for which it claims to offer protection. Religious Studies is, as Blyth has said, a means for cultural change, and it is also the discipline which should recall most vividly the maxim of Confucius, that such change, to be successful, must begin with the rectification of names. It was certainly not Callimachi’s intention in coining the term to sanction the actions of Daesh, and it is certainly not Blyth’s intention in borrowing it to legitimize Deuteronomy 21:11, but to treat “theology of rape” as an intelligible phrase, rather than the incomprehensible equivalent of a “married bachelor” or a “negative surplus,” is to participate in the structural violence of Newspeak. No matter the religion, English already has a clear term for justifying rape by religion, or identifying machismo with God—nonsense.


5 replies
  1. Avatar
    John says:

    I think this response misses the basic question, which is wheher there can be properly *religious* sexual violence, i.e., whether Daesh does what it does partly due to the fact it believes the way it does theologically.

    Recently I was lucky to hear the great scholar, Robert Orsi, discuss the specifically religious dimensions of the Catholic sex abuse scandal — here he raised a point that neither the Catholic Church nor the secular world seems to grasp: that there are specifically Catholic elements to the sexual abuse of children, e.g., in terms of celibacy, theologies of atonement and sin, the priest’s authority, etc.
    Similiarly, the disturbing reality (and I do find it disturbing because I wish if weren’t so) is that, in the same way, we cannot secularize rape, putting theology (or e.g., the ritiual act of prayer before rape) neatly on one saide and rape on the other. The problem is that religions actually *work* to produce certain kinds of subjects.

    Does that mean we should essentialize Islamic theology as condoning rape? Of course not. That would be a dangerous lie. But can we ignore that there are clearly religious dimensions of Daesh’s sex trade? No, we can’t. That leaves mired in a religious/secular divide that Daesh evidently does not operate out of.

    • Avatar
      Race MoChridhe says:


      Thank you for your very thoughtful and considered comment. I agree with you that it would be dangerous and irresponsible for us not to recognize the ways in which particular religious teachings may influence adherents’ behavior toward the commission of certain acts. My concern is about the way that the language we use in making those critical observations may serve to inadvertently legitimize particular interpretations. The abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church are an excellent example. We can certainly say, with Orsi, that there are aspects of Roman Catholic teaching that have made the Church a viable environment for abuse to occur, and that have inhibited its ability to respond effectively as an institution. That is very different, though, from saying that the Catholic Church has developed a “theology of pederasty”. That formulation seems to me to imply a degree of compatibility and congruence between the actions of abusers and Roman Catholic teaching that simply does not exist. There is no credible, authorized (in the sense of being promulgated or supported by duly regarded religious authorities) interpretation of Catholic teaching that justifies the abuse of children.

      As scholars, we tend to take a descriptive, rather than a prescriptive, approach in our work, but the point I wish to make here is that there are moral responsibilities arising from the intimate interrelationship between our discourse about religion and the discourses of the religious communities we study. As my last response (“What is Right with Pagan Studies?” touched on, the Pagan community has been very successfully using the discipline and discourse of religious studies to legitimate and promote itself for the last thirty years. Practicing Pagans in Pagan Studies have ingeniously written and published as scholars the very secondary literature that they employ as practitioners to assert status in their interactions with governmental bodies, interfaith organizations, and other groups in the wider society. I have no issue with their doing so, and they are generally very nice people, but they highlight the fact that, ss much as we try to remain impartial, our merely taking notice of groups begins a process of establishing them as “real” in social discourse, and our willingness to platform them through research creates opportunities for them to claim legitimacy. This certainly does not mean that we should “no-platform” groups by refusing to study them, but it does most certainly mean that we have to be very wary about the language we use, and ensure in some cases that we are not dignifying criminality as a theological position. Otherwise, we both implicitly aid those seeking to justify the unjustifiable, and also discredit ourselves from other contexts where a dispassive, methodologically agnostic voice may be needed to challenge prejudice (as in policy debates on the restrictions applied to many minority and tribal religions in various parts of the world).

  2. Avatar
    Anonymous says:

    Let me begin with the caveat that I agree with much of this post, at least in spirit — rape is a horrific crime, and we should abhore institutions (religious, political, or otherwise) that perpetuate rape culture. And, in my own writings on God, I try to refer to God either in feminine or gender neutral terms.

    I was surprised to read this post on a website like the RSP, which has long allied itself with methodological agnosticism in religious studies. Normative assumptions — about, for example, the “right” way to reach God — are incompatible with methodological agnosticism. Moreover, the post is a bit stilted towards theistic commitment. At least in American society (where I live and study), folks often conflate theistic (often specifically Christian) commitment with the Good, the Right, and the Just. If one makes a conflation like that, and one commits oneself to the belief that rape is wrong, then it follows that the phrase “theology of rape” is “semantically unparseable” and “nonsense”. On the other hand, if one makes no such conflation, then pursuing “the knowledge of God” is (at least) semantically compatible with sexual violence, since there is no automatic equation between goodness and theistic commitment. In other words, unless we have a prior commitment to a specific theological perspective, in which we frame our work, we should not say someone who seeks “knowledge of God” cannot seek such knowledge in ways others (perhaps rightly) see as perverse. (Even the last statement — that such a pursuit would be perverse — is incompatible with methodological agnosticism.) And, more to the point, if there is no God, then there is no “right” way to seek “knowledge of God”, for there is no such knowledge. Importantly: scholars committed to methodological agnosticism should not be in the business of siding with either theism or atheism, and so they should refrain from commentary (at least in a religious studies context) siding with one or the other.

    • Avatar
      Christopher Cotter says:

      Just to weigh in here to point to the disclaimer below (which I guess needs to be updated to include NAASR and IAHR) that “The views expressed in podcasts, features and responses are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Religious Studies Project or the BASR.” I post this not as a cynical “get out jail free card”, but simply to acknowledge that although we generally try and keep a relatively tight reign on the critical and non-confessional (for want of a better term) nature of the content on this site, this is much more the case in terms of the podcasts. We see these responses in particular as sites for listeners – and this includes the respondents – to react to the podcast, and to facilitate exactly the sort of debate that is now occuring in this comments section. So… thank you, to all involved, for continuing this debate. It is very much appreciated.

    • Avatar
      Race MoChridhe says:

      You are quite right that I am not a methodological agnostic. During the BASR-sponsored series on sociology of religion, one of the RSP lads (alas, I forget which), joked that, “If you know what religion is, you’re a theologian.” It was funny, but also fairly accurate as a characterization of the difference between religious studies and theology as disciplines. That being said, I think the line between the two is not nearly as impermeable as many on both sides often want to make it, and I wish to express my gratitude to the RSP team for permitting me (a religious studies degree holder who is, nonetheless, a self-identified thealogian) an occasional voice in the discussion here.

      That being said, I don’t feel that I breach the limits of a reasonable methodological agnosticism in this case. My undergrad was in German. In the German Studies department, saying that the city of Gdansk (formerly Danzig) is in Poland is not considered a “normative assumption”, but a statement of objective fact. One can certainly find neo-Nazi recidivists in Germany who believe that it is, by right and essence, a part of Germany, but the German government, the Polish government, and the international consensus of all other duly constituted political authorities and NGOs agree that it is in Poland. For a scholar in German Studies to say that it is in Poland is mundane; only the declaration that it is in Germany would be treated as a departure from objectivity or as a normative politicization of scholarship.

      In the same fashion, Daesh makes certain claims about the theological acceptability of its sexual politics. Religions, however, like countries, have duly constituted authorities with mechanisms for resolving definitional disputes. All five established madhabs (schools of Islamic jurisprudence) reject Daesh’s doctrinal claims on this point, as do a clear majority of reputable scholars and the major institutions of Islamic learning (such as al-Azhar). Many of these go so far as to claim that Daesh’s actions are so fundamentally incompatible with Islamic teaching that they must be considered as apostates, and can no longer be classified as Muslims at all.

      One can object, of course, that all these authorities are sectarian and not at all impartial, but they are the established authorities within the Islamic community. If we do not permit them to define Islamic teaching, we are implicitly imposing our own definition over the heads of practicing Muslims, or else negating the possibility of a definition, leaving religious studies as a field unable to formulate a falsifiable or generalizeable (and thus experimentally repeatable) claim. Forced to choose, for the field’s preservation, between imposing my own definitions as a scholar and accepting those which the communities I study offer through their designated authorities, I will take the latter.

      Thus, when I argue that a “theology of rape” is a logical impossibility, I do not have to do so as a normative judgement from my own opinion or from the teaching of my own community, but can instead formulate a conclusion from a comparison of the theological claim offered to the definitions established by the relevant authorities (in the case of Daesh, this would be the consensus [ijma] of the ulema). If this is done rigorously enough, the resulting formulation on the scholar’s part is no longer “normative” (in the sense of “arbitrary” and “prescriptive” that that word has come to imply) but is instead simply factual, like the location of Gdansk.


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