Luce Irigaray’s writings on religion and divinity are perhaps her most overlooked and misunderstood. In general, there are two kinds of wary reactions to Irigaray’s religious thinking: on the one hand are secular feminists, who hold that feminist theory should be concerned with social and political justice, not salvaging patriarchal religion. Another form of resistance comes from feminists who embrace these traditional forms of religion, such as Christian feminists, who see Irigaray’s view of divinity as a call for women to ‘play God’, an idea they find theologically problematic.
Irigaray clearly places value on the religious dimension and asserts the need for women to refigure this dimension in their own terms—an effort that will certainly have ramifications in the political sphere, but cannot simply be defined as a political act. This reveals what is perhaps the underlying difficulty that feminist critics, both religious and secular, have with Irigaray’s religious thought: Irigaray’s divine straddles and destabilizes the neat binary of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ that is taken for granted in the discourses of modernity; for the religious feminist, Irigaray seems too secular; for the secular feminist, her work seems excessively mired in religious language and thought.
While secular theorists may be tempted to rescue Irigaray from overt religiosity, in Key Writings, Irigaray makes it clear that her interest in religion cannot be reduced to a mere political strategy. She repeatedly asserts the need for women to develop a relation to the infinite, and this is not merely a means to a political end. She characterizes a central aim of her work as an attempt to ‘think anew a religious dimension when many believe we have put an end to it’ (Key Writings, p. 147). Religion, she writes, ‘in some obscure way … holds together the totality of the self, of the community and culture’, and as such, it is crucial to consider ‘how we have been determined by this dimension and how we can, in the present, situate ourselves with respect to it’ (Key Writings, pp. 171, 145). As both intensely personal and deeply communal, religion has potential to transform relations between self and other.
To better understand Irigaray’s preoccupation with religious concepts, such as divinity, it is helpful to get a sense of her overall project. Irigaray characterizes her work as progressing through three distinct but interconnected phases (Hirsch and Olson, p. 97). The first phase, comprised of the works Speculum of the Other Woman and This Sex Which is Not One, she describes as her critical phase, in which she shows Western culture and philosophy has interpreted the world from a single perspective of the masculine subject. In her second phase, beginning with An Ethics of Sexual Difference, Irigaray turns her attention to defining and conceptualizing subjectivity in the feminine. This investigation leads to the emergence of a third phase, in which Irigaray moves from considering only feminine subjectivity into considering intersubjective relations that respect sexuate difference. In other words, Irigaray’s current work is primarily concerned with the establishment of a culture of two sexuate subjects, man and woman, which would supplant the monoculture of the masculine subject. Paralleling these movements is an increasing religious interest within her work, and its role in establishing a culture that welcoming sexuate difference.
This concept of sexuate difference is fundamental to understanding Irigaray’s oeuvre in its entirety, as well as her religious thought. For Irigaray, sexuate difference is ontological in the sense that there is no un-sexed human being. Sexuate difference is not merely biological difference, however, but refers to two distinct, relational identities. Sexuate difference, in Irigaray’s view, is irreducible difference: neither man nor woman can be reduced to the other; there exists a negativity, an irreducible mystery or transcendence between them. Irigaray’s central project of rethinking sexuate difference is intricately connected to her reconception of the divine. She argues that Western discourse obscures difference, particularly sexuate difference, by positing a culture of and between men and a God that is estranged from human experience, absolutely other, that serves as an ideal to guarantee masculine subjectivity. Difference is not conceived between and among sexed human beings, but is merely a ‘marker of greater or lesser proximity’ to the divine (Key Writings, p. 174). According to Irigaray, then, until religion is reconceptualised, feminine subjectivity will remain unthought and a renewed encounter with the other in difference will remain unrealized.
For Irigaray, conceiving of feminine subjectivity is connected to women becoming divine. She articulates a mode of being that is becoming; subjectivity is processual, not merely obtained at birth or through an androcentric oedipal crisis. In order for the development of the subject to occur and continue, it must be oriented toward a divine horizon, a never-realized goal or ideal that facilitates continual transformation. In existing discourse, she argues, women have been unable to become subjects as women. ‘Woman’ has been defined solely in relation to ‘man’, who defines himself through his male God. Thus, women have no direct relation to the infinite. This lack of an adequate religious discourse, one reflective and inclusive of women’s embodiment and experiences, results in stasis, in paralyzed becoming.
Embodiment is key here, because for Irigaray, divinity is fundamentally a question of incarnation. Irigaray rejects the opposition between divinity and humanity; becoming divine is an incarnate process that women and men must realize for themselves, as sexuate subjects. As Irigaray writes, the spirit must ‘remain soul in the flesh’ in order to become (Key Writings, p. 169). Becoming divine, then, is to cultivate one’s own incarnation, to realize oneself as both flesh and divine spirit.
This notion of incarnation has the potential to disrupt conceptual oppositions of divinity and humanity, spirit and flesh, body and Word, and thereby has the potential to subvert the binary schema of Western discourse. According to Irigaray, however, this potential remains unrealized, as a schism persists between the embodied and the divine. Irigaray’s concept of incarnation is, of course, drawn from Christ’s incarnation, a central tenet of Christian theology; Jesus Christ is the Divine Word made flesh. Irigaray recognizes that the dualisms of phallocentrism, which privilege what is male, divine, rational, immaterial, and transcendent, are potentially confounded by the notion of incarnation. Rather than ‘a redemptory submission of the flesh to the word’, Irigaray’s incarnation manifests ‘a different relationship between flesh and word’, a bond ‘in which human and divine are wedded’ (Marine Lover, p. 169).
Irigaray’s work on religion and spirituality creates a fruitful interchange between feminist theory and religious tradition, one that is not merely critical or deconstructive. Irigaray is careful to stress that rethinking religion does not mean utterly abandoning religion. Rather, it means finding the path between blind submission to tradition and thoughtless rejection or critique of those traditions that form us. In her work, Irigaray advocates a dual task of conservation and creation—to keep alive what remains life-giving and to confront what inhibits women from becoming divine (Key Writings, p. 187).
Dr Abigail Rine Favale is an Assistant Professor of English at George Fox University, Newberg, Oregon. She is the author of Irigaray, Incarnation and Contemporary Women’s Fiction (Bloomsbury, 2013), which was awarded the 2014 Feminist and Women’s Studies Association Book Prize.
Hirsch, Elizabeth and Gary A Olson, ‘“Je—Luce Irigaray”: A Meeting with Luce Irigaray’, Hypatia 10 (1995).
Irigaray, Luce, Speculum of the Other Woman (Gillian Gill tr, Cornell University Press 1985).
——, This Sex which is not One (Catherine Porter tr, Cornell University Press 1985)
——, Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche (Gillian Gill tr, Columbia University Press, 1991).
——, An Ethics of Sexual Difference (Carolyn Burke & Gillian Gill tr, Cornell University Press 1993).
——, Key Writings (Continuum 2004)