Mary Daly’s Pure Lust: A Symposium

Editor’s Note: The incommensurability between occasion and reaction has been called the mark of genius. Mary Daly’s new work, Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy (Beacon Press 471 pp., $18.95), is not, a first blush (we speak advisedly) the kind of book we would want to review, let alone devote a symposium to. It reaches a nadir in postconciliar theology. Nonetheless, this exemplum horribile has elicited from our reviewers a bouquet of delights. Each in her or his own way exhibits the mark of genius.

Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy, Mary Daly’s most recent parthenogenous production, seems, at first glance, to be a moderately clever satire on historical and contemporary male chauvinism. Characterizing the world of Big Brother as Stag-nation, a realm of fixers/tricksters ruled by ghosts/ghouls/snools, Daly offers us the Otherworld of Hag-ocracy, a realm of Witches/Crones/Harpies/Furies/Amazons/Spinsters, ruled by passion and fueled by astral force, a realm in which Wild women, escaping the boredom of phallocracy, spirate through gnostispheres, riding the tides and soaring to the stars, thanks be to the Triple Moon Goddess, Necessity.

All of this could be good clean fun, delivered tongue-in-cheek, and post-scripted with the remark, “Well, gentlemen, now that you’ve been given a good dose of your own medicine, let’s get down to brass tacks.” Unhappily, Daly has neither the desire nor the elemental, as it were, humor to carry off such a project. In place of the bread of satire, she serves us the bedrock of radical /fanatical feminist chauvinism, a mirror image of the Stagocracy which she herself so much deplores.

Characterizing radical feminists as no-sayers to negators deniers of denial and reversers of reversal. Daly intends Pure Lust to be a kind of elementary/elemental text-book in Shape-shifting, i.e., overturning that view of reality which attaches to patriarchy. Since Daly identifies patriarchy with religion in general and Christianity in particular, Shape-shifting means primarily the overturning of that vision of reality which rules/fuels Christianity. The primal act of Shape-shifting is, therefore, the destruction of the symbol of the Christian God. The primary goal of elemental feminist philosophy is the replacement of Christianity with the Nag-gnostic view of Being (or, rather, Metabeing) as fundamentally feminine, natural and autonomous/ self-creating.

One sees in Daly’s work recapitulations of heretofore primarily masculine themes, e.g., Marx’s revaluation of all values, Nietzsche’s nay-saying and death of God. Feuerbach’s notion of religion as projection of the human mind, Heraclitus’ and Whitehead’s notions of reality as movement /change /process, and even Moltmann’s view of reality as promise/possibility. What one does not see in Daly are the first rate abilities of many of the men who have already exploited these themes: nor does one see the humanist context in which they wrote. While the former is merely a deficiency in Daly herself, the latter is by deliberation on her part. For there is, in her view, no humanist perspective ,possible in patriarchy. Nor, it would appear, in the feminism which she espouses.

We also do not find in Daly any trace of Catholic faith. Quite the contrary. Her self-styled Nag-gnosticism is the very antithesis of all things Catholic. This being the case, we must ask ourselves what, if any, value Daly has for Catholic theologians, particularly those Catholic theologians interested in the role of women in the Church and in the world. I would suggest that her value lies precisely in the fact that she is antithetical to Catholicism and therefore recognizes Catholicism to be the most serious threat to radical/fanatical feminism. Her recognition of the threat which Catholicism poses is most apparent with regard to two areas of Catholic teaching: the supernatural order (grace) and Mariology.

Daly describes elemental feminist philosophy as “rooted in love for the earth and for things that naturally are on the earth.” Elemental feminists are therefore interested not in the supernatural but in the “supremely natural.” From this perspective, in which God is seen as the projection of man/men, the supernatural is “unnatural,” the unwelcome male imposition of “divine care packages” on female beings who desire only a natural happiness which lies within their own power to achieve. “Elemental women want happiness attainable by virtue of our own nature, not as a ‘super-natural’ dole, or a handout.” This, of course, is simply a recycling of Pelagianism in a pagan context, with a vicious radical/fanatical feminist twist. For women are encouraged to look to the fallen angels as inspirers/allies of a Nag-gnostic pride which would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven.

Once the “shape” of grace is “shifted” to the category of the “unnatural,” it is but a simple step to perceiving Mary, in her Immaculate Conception, as the victim of a divine rape which de-naturalizes her, dispossessing her of her very self. Within such a context, her fiat is the meaningless gesture of an already-emptied will, a further act of divine rapacity by which the female is turned into a placental principle for incarnating the male presence. Hence, Daly calls on elemental feminists to “reverse the reversals,” that is, to go beyond the patriarchal dispossessing of Mary to the “deep Memory” which recognizes in these distorted Marian doctrines the latent truth that “pre-rapesarian” reality is natural, autonomous and feminine.

If Daly, viewing the supernatural order and the Marian doctrines as distorted truths, recognizes in them serious threats to her elemental feminist philosophy, it would behoove Catholic theologians, particularly Catholic women theologians who recognize these Church teachings to be valid statements about reality, to re-examine them more closely for any latent truths they may contain with regard to the importance of women in the Church and in the world. Daly is, in part at least, reacting to the neo-scholastic two-story universe of nature and grace, itself the product of an excessively rationalist notion of the created order. While enormous efforts have been made in this century, particularly by Blondel, de Lubac and Rahner, to overcome the extrinsic grace which an earlier theological and philosophical rationalism had produced, much more work remains to be done in this area.

Not only does much work remain to be done, there is considerable evidence suggesting that a good deal of that work must be done by women theologians. For just as the pagan world associated the feminine with the material realm, so does the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament associate the feminine with created wisdom (cf. Proverbs 8:22-31). This created wisdom does not compete with, but rather complements, the uncreated wisdom of divinity. If Catholic women today are to avoid not only the pagan/patriarchal dualism between male and female, but also its modern/matriarchal counterpart (Daly’s “reversal of reversals”), we must recognize in Mary the full splendor of that created wisdom which is neither parthenogenous nor dispossessed. By this route only shall we also discover our own fundamental importance in the Church, and in the world. For Mary is symbolic of the Church, and the Church is the historical embodiment of the good creation which God intended from the beginning.


  • Joyce A. Little

    At the time this article was published, Joyce A. Little was assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.

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