e-mail us


Gebara challenges old concepts

By Ivone Gebara
Fortress Press, 240 pages, $22


Writing in a low-key, almost conversational style, Ivone Gebara, a Brazilian Sister of Our Lady, challenges what she calls “the traditional monotheism and anthropocentrism that have characterized and structured Christian tradition.” The underlying philosophical theories, borrowed from the Greeks, have always had a human-centered and male-centered bias, and simple justice requires that we undo the resulting harm.

The male-centeredness has resulted in creating a culture in which “masculine” qualities are exalted to the downgrading of other qualities. Even the formulations of Christian beliefs have been affected. “This means accepting the fact that none of these concepts is more than a perspective, a tentative point of view adopted in order to deal with everyday life and with the broader sweep of history.” The words are deceptively gentle, but Gebara’s message is clear. Every Christian formulation of belief is reformable, even such basic dogmas as the nature of God, the Trinity, the role of Jesus of Nazareth.

The male-centered bias resulted in the creation of a hierarchy of knowledge. The type of knowledge regarded as important by men, and monopolized by them -- science, philosophy, theology -- was “true” knowledge. “What was left to women and the poor was so-called experiential knowledge, knowledge based on everyday experience; but this was not automatically recognized as real knowing.”

The human-centeredness underlies the destruction of the planet, the pollution of the atmosphere, the destruction of the world’s forests, all of which have reached crisis levels in the last hundred years. We cannot even begin, however, to reverse these processes until the assumptions on which our understanding both of the world and of God are identified and analyzed.

The world that Gebara would have us envision is one in which “relatedness” would be the center, with relatedness as another word for God. “To call God ‘relatedness’ is to use a word to describe something that goes beyond all words; it describes an experience but goes beyond all experiences. It speaks of God as possibility, as opening, as the unexpected, the unknown, as physical and metaphysical. This is a relatedness that has no exact definition; it cannot be reduced to a given being, a given species or a given system.”

Relatedness is for Gebara the primary reality. “It is more elementary than awareness of differences or than autonomy, individuality or freedom. It is the foundational reality of all that is or can exist. It is the underlying fabric that is continually brought forth within the vital process in which we are immersed. Its interwoven fibers do not exist separately, but only in perfect reciprocity with one another -- in space, in time, in origin and into the future.”

Gebara’s concept of relatedness undergirds her militant ecological stand. She sees the traditional understanding of God’s mandate to humans in Genesis to “fill the earth and conquer it,” as leading logically to today’s abuse of “the sacred body of the earth, which is bought and sold and prostituted for the sake of easy profit and the accumulation of wealth by a minority. ... It is our actions that have put the earth in bondage, that have damaged it, polluted it and impoverished it. For this reason, it is the earth that is both the subject and the object of salvation. We need to abandon a merely anthropocentric Christianity and open ourselves up to a more biocentric understanding of salvation.”

The ecofeminist perspective developed in this book, Gebara says, is “a different way of knowing: a different understanding of the human person and a different experience of and discourse concerning God.” She insists, however, that she is not post-Christian. “Rather, I am post-dogmatic and post-patriarchal.” She certainly raises important questions, and it would be a mistake not to join with her in her ongoing search for answers.

Gary MacEoin’s e-mail is gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2000