Introduction: The Complexity of Symbols

Caroline Walker Bynum

From Gender and Religion: On the Complexity of Symbols, ed. by Caroline Walker Bynum. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Until recently the field of comparative religion dealt with homo religiosus - the religious experience of man. The fact that religious man often worshiped Mother Nature was considered an oddity, a stage he outgrew as he moved on to more transcendent (and frequently male) deities. When, under the impetus of feminist theory, "religious woman" began to be considered, scholars noted that she often worshiped a Father God or found the transcendent revealed in a male figure. Since societies in which women worshiped male deities tended to be societies in which men were dominant and since indeed the lack of interest in woman’s religious experience seemed most acute among male scholars who studied patriarchal societies and patriarchal religions, some radical reformers began to suggest that male deities themselves were the problem. Recent feminist critiques of both Western and non-Western religious traditions have agreed that men gain authority from the fact that the source of ultimate value is often described in anthropomorphic images as Father or King. But feminist activists have been sharply divided between those who would respond by discarding male symbols in religion - often discarding much of the theological tradition in question as well - and those who would rewrite liturgies and reform language to insert female symbols and pronouns among male ones.

However the debate about current religious language and practice is finally resolved, the questions of feminists have changed the course of scholarship. It is no longer possible to study religious practice or religious symbols without taking gender - that is, the cultural experience of being male or female - into account. And we are just beginning to understand how complex the relationship between religion and gender is. This volume of essays is intended to respond to the present situation of scholarship by explaining what it means to take gender seriously in studying religion and what it means to take religion seriously when asking questions about gender. This book is about both gender and religion.

Our Approach

In exploring the relationship between gender and religion, the authors of this volume insist upon two fundamental insights. First, they insist upon the feminist insight that all human beings are "gendered" - that is, that there is no such thing as generic homo religiosus. No scholar studying religion, no participant in ritual, is ever neuter. Religious experience is the experience of men and women, and in no known society is this experience the same. Second, this volume assumes the phenomenological insight that religious symbols point men and women beyond their ordinary lives. As Paul Ricoeur explains it, there is no such thing as a religious symbol that is merely a sign of or statement about social structure. However religious symbols "mean," they never simply prescribe or transcribe social status. Rather they transmute it, even while referring to it. Religious symbols are, as the anthropologist Victor Turner puts it, "polysemic"; they have the quality of possessing manifold meanings.

The basic contribution of our collection of essays is to elaborate a theory of religious symbol as "polysemic" and a theory of experience as "gendered," and to elaborate these in such a way that each insight informs the other more fully than has previously been the case in American scholarship. It is to suggest that gender-related symbols - symbols that, at one level, signify maleness or femaleness (and symbols never merely signify) - do not simply determine the self-awareness of men and women as gendered nor do they simply reflect cultural assumptions about what it is to be male or female. Gender-related symbols, in their full complexity, may refer to gender in ways that affirm or reverse it, support or question it; or they may, in their basic meaning, have little at all to do with male and female roles. Thus our analysis admits that gender-related symbols are sometimes "about" values other than gender.

But our analysis also assumes that all people are "gendered." It therefore suggests, at another level, that not only gender-related symbols but all symbols arise out of the experience of "gendered" users. It is not possible ever to ask How does a symbol - any symbol mean? without asking For whom does it mean?

Some examples may make our method clearer. Let us take three cases of gender-related images from the chapters that follow. The Church of the Latter-day Saints, sometimes known as the Mormons, teaches that all spirits are created by a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother and progress toward perfection in this life and beyond as members of human families. To Mormon adherents, the individual self has gender for all eternity, and this gender reflects a male/female division lodged at the heart of ultimate reality. To Christians in medieval Europe, on the other hand, God was sometimes seen as a bridegroom to whom all souls, no matter what sort of sexual body they inhabited, related as brides. But the "otherness" of God from creation meant that this God could also be seen as a whirlwind, a circle whose center is everywhere, or a nursing mother; it meant that all such epithets were finally valueless for evoking or explaining the essence of the divine. If we turn to the Chinese tradition, we find yet a third way in which gender symbols refer to the ultimately real. A beloved document of Confucianism says: "Heaven [Ch’ien] is my father and Earth [K’un] is my mother." But the Confucian tradition also teaches that wholeness is a feminine image and that wholeness transcends diversity. The ultimate, to a Chinese philosophers is clearly not father or masculine; but if it is feminine, it is so only with an expanded meaning of feminine that leaves its referent in social experience far behind. Self and cosmos are thus not male and female for a Chinese philosopher or a Christian mystic in the same sense in which they are male and female for a Mormon. But do they have gender at all? And, if so, what does it mean to attribute gender to that ultimate Wholeness or Oneness that is beyond distinction or definition?

These three cases raise questions about the meaning of religious symbols. How do such symbols refer to and make use of gender? But the questions we ought to ask do not stop here. For it is also unclear, in the three cases described above, whose meaning we are analyzing. Neo-Confucian theories, which may be understood as feminizing the cosmos, were produced by men. Male mystics in medieval Europe venerated the Virgin Mary and wrote of Jesus as mother. Mormon theologians (all male by theological prescription) prohibit the priesthood to women because fatherhood means leadership. But what is the significance of Chinese men elaborating the idea of wholeness as feminine? Do female mystics in Christian Europe see God as mother and mean by mother what their male counterparts mean? Do Mormon women experience in the same way as Mormon men their church’s theories of male and female roles lasting for all eternity? The purpose of our volume is to address these sorts of questions.


Some Recent Scholarship

Although our approach has been influenced by the large amount of recent theoretical literature both on feminism and on symbol, as well as by current work on women done by cultural anthropologists, it is important to point out several recognized genres of discussion to which our book does not belong. First, our book does not belong to that group of works (among which the most distinguished recent example is Falk and Gross, Unspoken Worlds) that seeks to remedy the earlier scholarly neglect of women by examining and comparing women’s religious experiences across cultures. Although we agree that women have been ignored and that ignorance about their religious roles badly needs rectifying, our goal is not to contribute to the body of information either about sex roles generally or about women’s religious roles in particular. Some of the essays presented here (especially that of Jamzadeh and Mills but also those by Bynum, Keyes, and Harrell) do contribute new information about women’s religious experiences. But the goal of our volume is to explore how religious symbols relate to "genderedness" - to people’s experiences as males and females - and not, or at least not primarily, to further knowledge of women’s religious behavior.

Second, our book is not about male dominance. We do not here join the current discussion (of which Peggy Reeves Sanday’s Female Power and Male Dominance is a sophisticated example) about the extent of male dominance in religious traditions or about the explanations for it. Most of the religious traditions explored in our hook have articulated theories of male primacy; some of the chapters (for example, the one by John E. Toews) help us to understand why. But our volume does not enter the debate about dominance at either the empirical or the causal level. We do not seek to compare male-dominant traditions with other traditions, such as certain native American ones, characterized by sharp role differentiation and complementarity. Nor are we interested in finding a cause - either in biology, or in economic relations, or in symbols themselves - for the presence or absence of male dominance.

Third, our book is not primarily about the cultural and sociological conditions for gender ideologies. Although our approach has certain elements in common with a recent example of this genre, Ortner and Whitehead’s Sexual Meanings, our agenda is different from theirs. Symbolic anthropologists, like Ortner, Whitehead, Rosaldo, and others, have devoted their attention to what they call the "hegemonic (male-biased) ideology" and have avoided the question of women’s perspective. They defend their assumption that a dominant cultural conception of gender effectively masks differences arising from women’s experiences by arguing that "some form of asymmetry favoring men is present in all cultures and that women’s perspectives are to a great extent constrained and conditioned by the dominant ideology."’ We feel that the extent to which this is true is a matter to be decided empirically not programmatically, and we suspect that, even where there is no hint of an alternative ideology to counter a dominant one, subordinate and dominant individuals will experience the accepted ideology in different ways. The chapters that follow devote their primary attention to unmasking differences in perspectives rather than to delineating the features of the mask.

Moreover, anthropologists such as Ortner have sometimes - either implicitly or explicitly - presented their exploration of symbol as an argument for cultural as opposed to biological causation. Indeed the challenge of sociobiology has made such argument necessary. But we do not intend to enter the debate over whether biology or cultural experience "causes" gender. Our concern is with religion, not more generally with culture, and our approach to religious symbols, both in themselves and as expanded into ritual and myth, is more phenomenological than determinist. Our question is How do symbols mean? not What produces them? or How do they function? Some of the essays presented here, especially those by Harrell, Keyes, Jamzadeh and Mills, and Wallace, suggest the sociological setting of certain symbols - that certain symbols tend to emerge in the presence of certain configurations of society. Other essays, especially those by Richman, Black, Hynum, and Toews, suggest the cultural setting of specific symbols - that certain symbols tend to be associated with specific symbol clusters and with identifiable cultural values. But it is not our agenda to isolate sociological or cultural causes of gender-related symbols or to see these symbols in turn as causes.

Fourth, our book is not a contribution to the debate between reformist and radical feminists on "the goddess" or to the related debate between feminists and antifeminists on the same topic. In the past decade, American feminists have argued about the advisability and practicability of resurrecting or inventing female deities and symbols. In response to the radical feminist Spiritualists who argue for the so-called goddess solution, certain writers, both feminist and antifeminist, have suggested that this agenda is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of symbol and tradition. The debate has generated polemical writing on both sides, as well as scholarly efforts to explore the complex of meanings associated with goddesses or other anthropomorphic female symbols in the religious traditions of the world. Some of the chapters in this volume, especially those by Williams and Black, contribute to this debate by arguing that female symbols are so polysemic as to be accessible to both male and female ritual participants; some chapters (for example, those by Bynum and Toews) even suggest that, on occasion, men may be more attracted than women to symbols that refer to the female. But we do not see our collection of essays as focusing primarily on goddesses, on female-referring symbols, or on symbols used by women.


The Three Groups of Essays and Their Context

In exploring religion and gender, our essays fall into three groups. The first group, which treats symbol primarily as it is expanded into ritual, focuses on gender as culturally constructed. The second group, which treats specific gender symbols primarily in the context of other symbols as they appear in texts, focuses on the ways in which symbols mean. The third group, which also focuses on texts, includes the questions of the first two groups but adds a focus on the genderedness of author and audience. The coherence of each group of essays will become clearer if we examine their scholarly contexts.

Part 1 - those chapters by Jamzadeh and Mills, Keyes, Harrell, and Wallace - is composed by anthropologists and folklorists on the basis of ethnographic research. It comes closest in method to the cultural anthropology of Ortner, Whitehead, Rosaldo, and others discussed above. Indeed all the chapters in this volume share with cultural anthropology and with recent feminist psychology an emphasis on the distinction between gender and sex."

Sex is the term scholars use to designate the differences between men and women that can be attributed to biology. All human beings, whatever their sexual preference and cultural setting, have a sex. Gender is the term used to refer to those differences between male and female human beings that are created through psychological and social development within a familial, social, and cultural setting. All human beings have gender as well as sex, and this gender is culturally constructed. In other words, what people understand themselves to be qua male and female is learned and shaped within culture, and religious symbols are one of the ways in which such meanings are taught and appropriated.

The fields of psychology and cultural anthropology - especially as written by Americans - have recently begun detailed exploration of this process of cultural construction of gender; some of this work lies in the background of our first set of chapters, all of which explore both the ways in which messages about gender are conveyed by symbols and the ways in which social values shape the meaning of gender symbols. Thus Harrell suggests in his chapter that the complex fears that Chinese men feel about women influence the kind of ghosts these men see; Jamzadeh and Mills argue that differences in the food rituals of Zoroastrian and Shi’a Muslim women in Iran are shaped by the relative differences in the constraints imposed on women by the two societies.

None of the chapters in this volume simply follows the anthropological method of Ortner and Whitehead, however. Although the authors of Sexual Meanings are deeply concerned with the complexity of symbols and the cultural experiences of both men and women, we have tried to work out an understanding of symbol as polysemic and of experience as gendered that differs from theirs. Even in part 1, whose chapters are the most anthropological in method, we are not concerned primarily either with the question of cause - that is, with the exact distribution of biology and culture responsible for the male/female distinction - Or with the way in which a culture develops a dominant ideology about gender. As I shall explain below, we take our stand with French feminism, which focuses on the fact and experience of genderedness. rather than with American feminism, which focuses on cause. We also take our stand with the more phenomenological approach to symbol characteristic of Ricoeur, rather than with the somewhat more functionalist approach characteristic of much recent anthropology. The authors of the first four chapters are thus concerned less with symbols as a model of culture than with symbols in the context of gendered experience. And they see symbols as not merely reflecting and shaping but also inverting, questioning, rejecting, and transcending gender as it is constructed in the individual’s psychological development and sociological setting. Thus Wallace’s chapter examines how men and women experience the gender symbols of Mormonism differently, although men and women receive the same theological and social messages encoded in the symbols. Harrell looks not merely at the gender of the ghosts seen by Taiwanese but also at the relationship between the gender of the seer and the gender of what is seen. Keyes discusses ways in which the messages of Thai society about maleness are not simply reinforced by Buddhist initiation ritual but also inverted and questioned.

The chapters in part 2 - those by Richman, Black, and Williams - are composed by scholars trained in either comparative religion or intellectual history. Each of these essays has at its heart a text or set of texts. Yet, despite the very different material employed by these authors and the fact that the societies they study are not amenable to the kind of ethnographic exploration possible in the first group of essays, the method in the second group has similarities to that in the first. This second set of authors also focuses on religion, not on culture generally, and on religious symbols as polysemic.

Recent scholarship in the field of religion has been characterized by intensive and sophisticated discussion of the nature of symbol. I cannot enter here into the complexities of such discussion, but by treating three major theorists - Clifford Geertz (especially in his early writings), Victor Turner, and Paul Ricoeur - can explain why we have opted for Ricoeur’s more phenomenological approach. All three theorists see religious symbol as that which gives meaning to ordinary experience, not merely as a sign that points to it. All three are concerned with the believer or ritual participant as the one who receives or appropriates meaning. But of the three, Geertz relates symbol most closely to what it signifies. For this reason Geertz has been explicitly used (and misused) by some theorists who argue that female-referring symbols are especially attractive to women).

In his now-classic essay "Religion as a Cultural System’ Geertz argues that symbol provides "model of" and "model for.’ In other words, to Geertz, religious symbols, which he defines as "historically created vehicles of reasoning, perception, feeling, and understanding" give meaning to existence by providing a model of the world as it is and a model for the world as it ought to be - a template that shapes ordinary experience by reflecting it and, in the process, imparts value from beyond it. In contrast to Geertz’s concept of model, we might place Ricoeur's theory that symbols are opaque, oblique, and analogical." To Ricoeur, it is not the case that the symbol points out a meaning, that the meaning exists and the symbol names it. Rather the symbol itself in some sense precedes meaning; it "gives rise to thought." Water may signify. (i.e., point to) cleanliness, but it will never "mean" cleanliness. For cleanliness itself will point to absence of or freedom from something else, something palpable and real but not communicable in a single word; it may even point beyond absence of whatever is ‘soiling" to another state of "purity" that not only transcends the opposites of clean/dirty, pure/sinful, good/evil, but also expresses the subjective, human experience of such freedom. To Ricoeur, symbols point beyond ordinary experience, and beyond has a different meaning from Geertz's beyond. Although neither theorist thinks that symbol merely transcribes social structure, the beyond, for Geertz, is a set of ultimate values that, in a complicated but discoverable way, mirror the world. It is this "mirroring" that imparts meaning. For Ricoeur, in contrast, the beyond is open-ended - not really discoverable except by analogy. And meaning is not so much imparted as appropriated in a dialectical process whereby it becomes subjective reality for the one who uses the symbol. Therefore Ricoeur's model at least allows for the possibility that those with different gender experiences will appropriate symbols in different ways. whereas Geertz tends to suggest that the symbol system is the framework for all, no matter how complex its mirroring of reality may be. Moreover, Geertz’s idea of "model of and for" inevitably suggests that gender-related symbols in some sense reinforce the experiences of men and women qua men and women.

The anthropologist Victor Turner does not really understand symbol in the same way as Ricoeur, but there are several similarities between them. Both see symbol as reflecting not just a multiplicity of meanings but a multiplicity of relationships between meanings. Both see symbol using as a process of appropriating meaning. To Turner, symbols reflect in some deep way a ‘likeness" between the orectic (sensory) and the abstract or normative poles of meaning; symbols unify or "condense" natural physiological facts (e.g., milk, food, breasts) and normative or social values (e.g., nurture, matriliny, etc.). The using of symbol takes the ritual participant through a process, from social integration through crisis to some sort of reversal or redress and finally to reintegration. Although Turner’s approach is more functionalist than Ricoeur's, the two theorists agree in emphasizing two aspects of symbols: their capacity to refer simultaneously to many levels of human experience and their capacity to bring users to appropriate that to which the symbol points. Because of this agreement, we have adopted Turner’s term polysemic symbol to signify an emphasis, first, on the multivalent quality of images and, second, on symbol using as an active process of appropriation.

Despite the deep indebtedness of many of our authors to the example of Geertz’s scholarship, the essays in our volume come closer to the understanding of symbol found in Turner and Ricoeur. And the chapters in part 2 in particular are directed toward an exploration of gender symbols as polysemic. Richman opens the question of how specific gender symbols convey meaning by asking in what ways a particular female figure in a particular text can be read. She discovers that the figure can be read in two ways: in one, her gender is crucial to the religious meaning of the text; in the other, gender is largely irrelevant. It is impossible to determine how the text means without asking both how it refers outside itself to other texts and to society and for whom (what audience as well as what author) it has meaning. But, because symbols (and their expansion into narrative) are polysemic, the two readings of the text are not mutually exclusive. Building on this insight, Black and Williams consider a series of texts and discover, once again, that they both do and do not refer to culturally constructed gender. Gnostic and Chinese notions of wholeness/Oneness and diversity/multiplicity perhaps spring from men’s and women’s experience of gender and sexuality, and they are communicated in images of gender and of sexual activity. But the experiences they come to "mean" the experiences of simplicity and fragmentation - are far from the experience of social maleness and femaleness. In other words, Geertz's idea that symbol is model of and model for - even in its most complex sense - proves inadequate to the texts we consider here. Gender symbols seem sometimes to function as Geertz suggests. But when they are found at the heart of a religious tradition, they seem not so much to communicate information about gender - expressing its meaning for the society or even rejecting that meaning - as to conjure up the basic human fact, both glorious and painful, of multiplicity and fragmentation itself.

The third set of essays in this volume builds on the first two sets. Like the second set, these chapters are written by scholars trained in the history of religions and intellectual history. They focus on texts. The texts considered are, however, even more diverse than those in the second group. Indeed at first glance the final paper, by Toews, may not seem to belong at all. The psychoanalytic tradition it explores is not, one might argue, a religion. In answering this argument, we leave aside the suggestion that has sometimes been made that, in our postmodern secularized world, psychoanalysis has functioned as a kind of religion. We merely point out that Toews treats the psychoanalytic use of the Oedipus story as a myth, subject to interpretation and reinterpretation by various tellers of the tale, and that (according to Ricoeur's model) myth is "a species of symbol, a symbol developed into narrative form, articulated within a time and space that cannot be coordinated with critical history and geography." Thus, according to our model, Toews, like Bynum and Hawley, considers gender symbols and their expansion in ritual and narrative. More important, however, Toews not only asks the same questions as Bynum and Hawley about the genderedness of the users of symbols; he also finds answers that coincide in intriguing ways with the conclusions of the other two authors.

The final three chapters share with those in part 1 an understanding of gender as culturally constructed. The authors conclude from their analyses that gender symbols sometimes serve to express and reinforce cultural notions of gender. Bynum and Toews find the gender asymmetry characteristic of both Western European social arrangements and European social and theological theory reflected in certain aspects of the gender symbols of medieval mystics and modern psychologists. The final set of essays also shares with those of Richman, Williams, and Black a notion of religious symbol as polysemic. Hawley and Bynum, like Richman, stress the ways in which a female-referring symbol may or may not in its meaning reflect or invert the social experience of its user. Toews and Bynum, like Black, are interested in whether or not symbols convey meaning through evoking opposition or through reconciling opposites in either paradox or synthesis. What this final group of essays adds to the analysis developed in the first two sets is an awareness of the genderedness of authors and ritual participants.

Like the idea of gender as culturally constructed and the idea of religious symbol as polysemic, the idea of genderedness has a scholarly context. It is a feminist insight, but feminist in a particular sense. For feminism is no more monolithic than is the recent discussion of symbol by anthropologists and students of comparative religion. Certain schools or emphases within feminism can, however, be identified, and two are relevant here. While all feminism arises from concern with the asymmetrical treatment of women in modern scholarship and modern life, it is safe to say very generally that American feminism in the early 1970s tended to emphasize the similarity of men and women; by the early 1980s it had begun to stress the differences between them. It is also safe to say that American feminism has tended to be empirical, inductive, and concerned with causal analysis, wrestling repeatedly with the question Why is the condition of women as it is today? French feminism has been more literary and phenomenological wrestling with the questions: How can we talk about women’s experience? The chapters in this volume, reflect the recent concern of American feminism with difference. They also come closer to French than to American feminism because they avoid causal questions as - at least at this stage of scholarship unanswerable and focus rather on devising ways of understanding and talking about the differing experiences of women and men. They attempt to deal with the difficult question of understanding women’s perspectives even within traditions where explicit social and theological theories express male dominance and where most of the texts arc produced by men.

Thus, to the insight that gender is culturally constructed and the insight that all religious symbols are polysemic, the chapters in part 3 add the conviction that experience is gendered. In other words, not only do gender symbols invert or reject as well as reinforce the gender values and gender structures of society, they also may be experienced differently by the different genders. For example, Bynum argues that all Christians in medieval Europe tended to see God as male and soul as female. But, she argues, these concepts did not mean the same thing for women and men. To religious women, such images of self continued social experience; to religious men, such images were inversions and reversals of the power and status normally attributed to them. Not only did it mean a different thing for a man to see himself as a "bride of Christ," but such use of symbol involved a different mode of symbolic operation, one grounded in contradiction rather than continuity.

In adding a concern for the genderedness of experience, the final essays in this volume all ask the same question. What is striking is that their answers are parallel. Bynum, Hawley, and Toews do not, of course, find that medieval mystics, Hindi poets, and twentieth-century psychoanalysts have the same concepts of gender or reflect (or reject) the same social conditions. They do however find that the men and women of a single tradition - when working with the same symbols and myths, writing in the same genre, and living in the same religious or professional circumstances - display certain consistent male/female differences in using symbols. Women’s symbols and myths tend to build from social and biological experiences; men’s symbols and myths tend to invert them. Women’s mode of using symbols seems given to the muting of opposition, whether through paradox or through synthesis; men’s mode seems characterized by emphasis on opposition, contradiction, inversion, and conversion. Women’s myths and rituals tend to explore a state of being; men’s tend to build elaborate and discrete stages between self and other.


Implications of Our Analysis

The agreement in part 3 casts new light on the chapters in parts and 2. For example, when read in light of the suggestions about genderedness found in Bynum, Toews, and Hawley, the conclusions of Keyes about male initiation take on new significance. Keyes finds that male initiation reflects a sharp break with the world, whereas female rituals in Thai society express a greater continuity between the religious and the social experience of women. Similarly, Jamzadeh and Mills suggest that women’s food rituals in Iran express and give meaning to, rather than reverse or reject, women’s marginalized and domestic lives and the female social networks that characterize them. Such conclusions appear to reflect in ritual the kind of gendered experience Bynum, Toews, and Hawley find in texts. To take a more problematic example, the tendency noted by the authors of part 3 for men to use woman as a symbol of "the other" and to stress oppositions or reversals may be reflected both in the emphasis of (male) Chinese philosophers on correlative thinking and in their choice of holistic images associated with the feminine as a means of naming what is of ultimate value.

Indeed, if the conclusions of these final chapters are correct, the phenomenological theory of symbol I discussed above may need modification. While retaining Turner’s notion of symbol as polysemic and Ricoeur's idea that symbol is never merely sign, we may need to adapt for women the processual or dialectical elements in Turner and Ricocur. That is, we may need to modify their models of how symbols mean by incorporating women’s tendency to emphasize reconciliation and continuity. The symbolic reversals so important to Turner as a component of ritual may be less crucial for women than for men. The synthesis of objective referent and subjective meaning, which Ricocur thinks is achieved in the user by the symbol, may be for women less a dialectical process than an acceptance of, a continuous living with, paradox. Thus attention to gender in the study of religion would lead not only to a questioning of Clifford Geertz’s theory of symbol as "model of and model for" but also to an adjustment of even those more phenomenological insights that seem to allow for a greater complexity of relationship between social facts and symbolic meanings. In other words, the phenomenological emphasis of Ricoeur on the process by which the symbol is appropriated may need to be expanded by the phenomenological emphasis of French feminism on genderedness until we have a more varied and richer notion of the experiences of symbol users. By taking female symbol-users seriously, we might evolve an understanding of symbol itself in which paradox and synthesis take an important place beside dialectic, contradiction, and reversal.

Such suggestions remain suggestions. Much more research would be necessary to elevate them to the level of generalizations, and the careful work of Black and Williams warns of the dangers of premature theorizing. As Toews points out in chapter II, the only way to determine how men and women reinterpret their myths is to look at what particular groups of men and women say. It will not do to return to the essentialist and ethnocentric notions of female nature or of the "eternal feminine" that animated early twentieth-century research. The basic conclusion of our volume is that gender symbols are complex in their relationship to other symbols, to authors and ritual participants, and to society. We suggest here no single model of male or female symbol-using. But we do insist that gender in any society is a cultural fact (not reducible to biological sex), that religious symbols are never merely a model of the cultural fact of gender, and that no theory of symbol can be adequate unless it incorporates women’s experience and discourse as well as men’s.

In conclusion, then, we make no arguments about the nature of "religious woman" or "religious man." We put forward no theory of the cross-cultural meaning of female or male symbols. We lend support to no current schemes of religious reform that involve the creation of new symbols or the exclusion of old ones. While sympathetic to the intention of those who would reshape the palpable inequities in society by providing new images, we find the meaning of symbols, myths, and rituals too multilayered, too complex in its relationship to social structure and social values, to feel confident either that new rituals are easily created or that radical excisions of traditional symbols will have predictable results.

And yet, radical suggestions lurk behind our cautious, academic conclusion that our subject is a complex one. One such radical conclusion has been drawn before: even traditional symbols can have revolutionary consequences. For, if symbols can invert as well as reinforce social values (as Black, Keyes, and Hawley suggest), if traditional rituals can evolve to meet the needs of new participants (as Harrell, Jamzadeh, and Mills suggest), then old symbols can acquire new meanings, and these new meanings might suggest a new society. If the images we explore in such detail in the chapters that follow - images of men becoming female cowherds for Krishna, for example, or of the marriage of Gnostic soul and spirit as escape from defilement - have not in the societies that produced them brought about the equality of the sexes, it is not, so to speak, the fault of the images.

A second radical conclusion lies behind our method as well. It is simply this: if we turn our attention not to what gender symbols signify (for they never merely signify) but rather to how men and women use them, we may find that the varied experiences of men and women have been there all along. To say this is in no way to suggest that we should maintain the religious status quo, for, as things are, women’s voices in all their multiplicity are very hard to hear. But it is to argue that those who wish to effect the sort of changes that will let women’s experiences speak may need to work, not to substitute female-referring symbols for male-referring symbols, but to open new symbolic modes. If we take as women’s rituals and women’s symbols the rituals and symbols women actually use, and ask how these symbols mean, we may discover that women have all along had certain modes of symbolic discourse different from those of men. Even where men and women have used the same symbols and rituals, they may have invested them with different meanings and different ways of meaning. To hear women’s voices more clearly will be to see more fully the complexity of symbols. If this is so, an awareness of the genderedness of symbol users will enrich our understanding of both symbol and humanity.


Footnotes are contained in the published article, but not in this scanned version of the essay.

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