Valentine to the Self
In seminary, I was introduced to this piece by Valerie Saiving Goldstein, a groundbreaking essay entitled The Human Situation: A Feminine View, written in 1960.
It revolutionized my theology only on a smaller scale compared to how it revolutionized the whole field.
She begins the article with these words:
I am a student of theology; I am also a woman. Perhaps it strikes you as curious that I put these two assertions beside each other, as if to imply that one’s sexual identity has some bearing on his theological views. I myself would have rejected such an idea when I first began my theological studies. But now, thirteen years later, I am no longer as certain as I once was that, when theologians speak of “man,” they are using the word in its generic sense. It is, after all, a well-known fact that theology has been written almost exclusively by men. This alone should put us on guard, especially since contemporary theologians constantly remind us that one of man’s strongest temptation is to identify his own limited perspective with universal truth.
I purpose to criticize, from the viewpoint of feminine experience, the estimate of the human situation….
With these few sentences and the ideas that pushed them to the surface, well, it got people’s attention.
To see the ripple effect of her notions, check here in the Religion Dispatch for an eloquent commentary on her contribution.
And Time picked it up in June, 1960 here.
And here, Theology Today gives us a nice summary of what she did just for feminist theology alone.
See, Saiving Goldstein created space to consider the possibility (now generally accepted as true) that theology had been defined as a discipline by and for men.
And why not tackle sin right out of the chute?
So she did.
She did by putting it out there that the standard way of thinking about sin as being rooted always in pride may speak to men’s experience, but women’s?
Not so much.
The taught assumption, she said, was that humans (she uses the archaic term “men” to talk about all people, which makes the reading of the thing a bit difficult even if a person remembers that it was written in 1960) are anxious, she says, and they are anxious because they are free and able to “survey the scene,” consider possibilities, and chose among them.
But this freedom comes at a price: Humanity is tempted to “magnify its own power, righteousness, or knowledge. Man knows that he is merely a part of the whole, but he tries to convince himself and others that he is the whole. He tries, in fact, to become the whole.”
This way of being in the world, this compulsion, says Saiving Goldstein, is sin.
Or at least, that’s what theologians have taught us.
These same theologians, she says, tell us that love is the “precise opposite of sin.” Love is defined by self-sacrifice, the denial of everything that stands in the way of service to the Other. Just as pride is the source of all sin, tradition teaches us, so such self-giving love is the source of all goodness.
But here’s the kicker:
Contemporary theological doctrines of love have, I believe, been constructed primarily upon the basis of masculine experience and thus view the human condition from the male standpoint. Consequently, these doctrines do not provide an adequate interpretation of the situation of women–nor, for that matter, of men, especially in view of certain fundamental changes now taking place in our own society.
For example, women haven’t historically had the same freedom to choose between possibilities in most areas of life, like the familial, vocational, and political. Rape, she says, is an extreme example of how women can be forced into something against their will.
In fact, their will has been traditionally overlooked at best and disregarded at worst….not least of all by themselves. Women often have the habit of giving up their own needs and wants for the sake of someone else. To do otherwise is selfish, is it not?
She then goes into some elaborate and convincing analysis of anthropology, sex, the difference of girl morphing into woman vs. boy morphing into man, and an assertion that we live in a “hypermasculine culture” in which accepted theologies are steeped.
But of all the wisdom that Saiving Goldstein has in this article built on all of the above, the most famous excerpt is this one:
For the temptations of woman as woman are not the same as the temptations of man as man, and the specifically feminine forms of sin–“feminine” not because they are confined to women or because women are incapable of sinning in other ways but because they are outgrowths of the basic feminine character structure–have a quality which can never be encompassed by such terms as “pride” and “will-to-power.” They are better suggested by such items as triviality, distractibility, and diffuseness; lack of an organizing center or focus; dependence on others for one’s own self-definition; tolerance at the expense of standards of excellence; inability to respect the boundaries of privacy; sentimentality, gossipy sociability, and mistrust of reason–in short, underdevelopment or negation of the self.
That is, says Saiving, the very thing which traditional theology has taught is most valuable is actually most detrimental to women: selflessness. Women, due to biological factors and/or cultural ones, already define themselves and are defined by others primarily in terms of their devotion and relationship to others, even at the expense of their own possibilities, their own essence.
A person can explain a lot of family dynamics with this little insight.
But for Valentine’s Week, I’m wanting to move it a different way.
Regardless of whether you are male or female, Saiving Goldstein gives us the shocking notion that it is o.k. to love oneself. And, it’s even o.k. to act out of that love and have it have nothing whatsoever to with selfishness.
“Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Found more or less in Lev. 19:18 at Matthew 19:19 and 22:39.
It’s hard to love your neighbor; i.e., reach out to them (HarperCollins NRSV), if you don’t love (i.e., reach out) to yourself.
This is radical news to most of us, and perhaps especially stunning to women.
And yet even my little girl “gets it.” Some time ago Else, Karl, and I were cooking for a lot of people who had various states of chaos in their lives, and we loved to do it. But at one point, Else stopped, looked at me, and said, “Mama, you know what has dawned on me? We don’t play much on Saturday mornings. And while I love cooking for all of these people, it has dawned on me that sometimes it is hard to take care of others and take care of yourself.”
Valerie Saiving Goldstein would have nodded.
So perhaps we could write a Valentine to ourselves, male or female, inscribing not just adjectives about how wonderful we are, but how we are worth tending to, worth respecting, worth caring for, in part so that we can also care for others. And then perhaps we can figure out how to carve out intentional ways that that tending, respecting, and caring can take place.
And then perhaps we figure out a way not to feel guilty for this, fretting that we are engaging in sin…but perhaps rather that we are engaging in praise.