by Ilia Delio
I was raised in a matriarchal household by a Sicilian mother who was a staunch feminist long before the term was in vogue. I was taught from an early age that I could achieve anything with hard work and determination. My mother was an advocate for the poor and disenfranchised and did not hesitate to confront male authority on issues of justice and fairness. At five-foot two, she was a fearless stick of dynamite whose laser beam words could easily crush the male ego or leave one in the dust. I sometimes feared for her life because she herself was so completely fearless; and yet when I reflect on her life I know where my own power and determination were born.
Whereas I grew up with the privilege of education and liberalities I often take for granted, my mother grew up in a male-dominated culture and had to prove herself every step of the way. It is because of her that I both empathize with the #MeToo movement and the plight of women seeking justice and dignity and, yet, I am frustrated by the inertia of institutional change. From where I stand, I see two main pillars of gender discrimination and gender management that continue the system of patriarchy, namely, the Catholic Church and the Academy, in which Science is the core.
The roots of the Adam and Eve myth are deeply rooted in the ancient notion that women are weak and inferior.
In two fascinating studies of the Church and Science, the late Canadian historian David Noble accrued a score of historical evidence (although much of it as secondary sources) to show that the Church and Science have the same aim, namely, the apotheosis of the male Adam and the subjection of the female Eve. The roots of the Adam and Eve myth are deeply rooted in the ancient notion that women are weak and inferior. Plato wrote in his Timaeus that men have a superior soul than women and Aristotle held that women have incomplete intellects so that “the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.” These philosophical ideas were carried over to the Christian world where women were deemed by many Church Fathers as incomplete images of the image of God, despite the fact that many women heroically exemplified Christian ideals.
In his book, A World Without Women, Noble challenged the commonly held assumption that modern science developed in opposition to an authoritarian Church, claiming instead that the celibate, male- dominated Catholic tradition provided both support and inspiration for the scientific tradition that would virtually supplant it. Christianity originated as a potentially egalitarian religion, Noble says, but almost from the beginning, women were forced to struggle against political and cultural forces aimed at pushing them out of the spiritual mainstream and into the home. He argues that the clerical culture of medieval Europe, as a result of specific historical events, was misogynistic. Because science as practiced in medieval and Renaissance Europe was a Christian activity, conducted by clerics, there was little, if any, room in the scientific community for women. Noble links the great names in the Scientific Revolution, Protestant and Catholic alike, with monastic, misogynistic, ascetic attitudes.
…the lines of gender are becoming porous, hybridized, and technologized.
It was a male-dominated, misogynistic Church, then, that established the European colleges from which modern science sprang—colleges in which the pursuit of knowledge was considered a sacred act; scholars were treated as a kind of monk, celibacy was encouraged, and women were categorically excluded. According to what Noble calls the “clerical ascetic” view, sexual desire was an ineradicable and volatile source of temptation; even baptized Christians were under its power. Under such circumstances, clerical ascetics concluded that it was better to avoid contact with women completely, lest their seductive powers lead to sin. Clerical asceticism was virulently misogynous; women are dangerous to spiritual health. Clerics seeking to maintain their power sharpened their attacks on heresy but at the same time adopted practices of heretical sects —including celibacy which came to signify the superiority of the clergy over the mass of married laity. The universities that grew out of cathedral schools during the high Middle Ages adopted the clerical ascetic ideal. This exclusively masculine setting was later impressed on the early institutions of modern science which operated, according to Noble, as a “scientific asceticism.”
In A World Without Women, as well as another book, The Religion of Technology, Noble claims these origins have led to today’s curiously anomalous scientific priesthood in which women continue to be discriminated against and dismissed. Western science, in his view, is largely an effort to produce technologies, including reproductive and relational technologies (such as in the movie Her) that would make the existence of women unnecessary.
Whether or not one accepts Noble’s thesis that the Church and Science are actually in collusion against women (rather than the Church as the enemy of Science) is a subject for discussion; however, the trajectory of the 21st century seems to be moving in a new direction. Whereas Noble thought that modern technology (especially artificial intelligence) would abet the aim to divinize the fallen Adam, the development of artificial intelligence is leading in a new direction beyond what Noble suggested. Rather than divinizing Adam and eliminating women from fallen creation, technology is seeking a new means of techno-salvation and digital immortality. The ability of nature to be hybridized and refashioned through informational nets (even through the platforms of social media) are rewiring the human brain. The new techno-brain (or “ibrain”) perceives the ontology of gender as an open process of cross-fertilization, yielding to notions of polygender or agender; that is, the lines of gender are becoming porous, hybridized, and technologized.
Techno-evolution is empowering ontological shifts in personhood, among which both biological sex and gender are being reframed.
Martine Rothblatt, author of Virtually Human: The Promise—and the Peril—of Digital Immortality, sees the future of gender as a new freedom and fluidity of form. This idea is still shocking to most 21st century persons but it is not mere coincidence that the rise of artificial intelligence coincides with the loss of institutional religion. Techno-evolution is empowering ontological shifts in personhood, among which both biological sex and gender are being reframed. Despite the battles women must continue to fight in pursuit of dignity, respect, and equality, the power of patriarchy is weakening (resisting the fight, of course, on every level.) While justice for women is paramount, the human person is on the threshold of an evolutionary transition. What are we becoming up ahead? A techno-sapien, androgynous species may either be liberating or deadening. Human personhood must situate itself within cosmic evolution and find its meaning within a larger purpose, and in this respect the revitalization of religion can play a critical role, a new type of Church that is governed by a new type of person. In a universe this large, we are just waking up to the newness of God.
Ilia Delio, OSF is the founder and visionary behind the Omega Center. She is a Franciscan Sister of Washington DC, respected academic and theologian, and author of numerous books and articles. She is an internationally sought-after presenter, speaking on the intersection of Science and Religion, with particular interests in evolution, physics, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. Join Ilia and our other speakers for our first Omega Center conference this July 20-21 in Kansas City. Full details can be found here.
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Reading for an evolutionary age
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