‘The Expressible and The Inexpressible’: John Stuyfbergen

This post is the fifth in a series of responses to papers delivered at the Biennial Conference on Philosophy, Religion and Culture at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, 5th-7th October 2012.

Western Churches’ difficulty with Femininity and Mysticism

by John Stuyfbergen
John introduced his paper with a little quip about Freudian slips.  When he first sent of the proposed abstract to the conference committee, he unintentionally wrote the title as ‘Western churches difficulty with feminism and mysticism.’  Interesting indeed!  What is the relationship between conservative western churches rejection of feminism (with a pseudo embrace of femininity) and on a broader canvas, western churches difficulty with femininity, particularly as it is expressed in the mystical tradition?

Then John presented us with a proposal that Jacques Lacan’s theory of four fundamental types of discourses can reveal the underlying commitments of western church culture.  For Lacan, the word ‘discourse’ is important, because both our individual and corporate (cultural) unconscious take the same form as language.  I’m reading Lacan for my thesis, particularly through the more recent work of Luce Irigaray.  It’s complex and technical, so I was pleased to feel like I actually understood John’s presentation!

I’ll post more about Lacan in the future, for now, you can read an introduction to him here:  http://www.cla.purdue.edu/english/theory/psychoanalysis/lacandevelop.html.
Or you can go to wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Lacan

Lacan suggested that there is a master discourse (a master signifier in the singular) which works it’s way into a set of canonised propositions (university discourse), counter-culture (discource of hysteria) and deliberate subversion.  The question in John’s paper is, what is the master discourse driving the western church’s dominant discourse which marginalised both the feminine and the mystical?  Why does the mystical act as a prophetic voice from the edges of the church (discourse of hysteria), resulting frequently in renewal movements of contemplative spirituality (discourse of subversion)?

Ten years ago (can’t believe it’s that long) I was regularly involved in preparing couples for marriage at St Johns Toorak, a big ‘wedding church’ in Melbourne.  I developed a way of helping couples talk through difficult issues when they were in disagreement or anger, which drew upon the analogy of the anger volcano.  The core danger of the volcano is buried deep inside it’s heart, and only gradually rises to the surface as the fires are stoked.  The issue which ‘breaks the camel’s back’ and leads to an explosion of anger, is rarely the same issue which started the build up of the anger.  Plus, there may be several other issues along the way.  Psychologists sometimes talk about anger as a ‘secondary emotion’ in this regard – anger is provoked by other primary emotions such as hurt, frustration, disappointment, betrayal, insecurity and so on.  I would give couples a sheet of paper with a line drawing of the volcano and ask them to choose an issue that they had conflict around.  On the left hand side they had to name the issue, starting at the top of the volcano with the thing that had provoked the confrontation, then identifying what was underneath that concern, and then the issue that was underlaying that deeper concern and so on and so on until they felt like they got to the bottom of it.  It is amazing to watch people ‘get to the bottom’ of an issue, you can see their shoulders relax and hear them exhale in unmistakable relief to be talking about what really matters most.  Down the right hand side they had to name the feelings that issue evoked in them.  In general, men found it easier to start with the left hand side and women found it easier to start with the right hand side and identify the issues after they had named how they were feeling.

I wonder now whether Lacan’s primary signifier can be represented in this same way.  Ironically, the conference itself presented an ideal illustration of the exclusion of feminine and mystical energy or knowledge.  There was no space in the program for liturgy, meditation or prayer; no moments of quiet or corporate reflection; no intentional facilitation of relationships or networking; and a lot of talking about beauty, emotions and spirituality without room for enacting or embodying it.  What is the commitment driving this preoccupation with masculine modes of being and thinking?  Lacan would call that commitment the master signifier.  In my analogy above I would call it the fire of the volcano.

Dr. John Stuyfbergen is Acting Director of USBA, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, School of Communication, Arts and Critical Enquiry at LaTrobe University, Melbourne.  He specialises in autobiographical writing and is passionate about migrant stories and justice for refugees. You might like to check out his interesting blog: hereweareagainblog

4 thoughts on “‘The Expressible and The Inexpressible’: John Stuyfbergen

  1. Did a quick scan of your blog and enjoyed it. If I missed somethign, excuse me, but think you could benefit greatly from reading Lonergan. For examplehttp://www.questia.com/library/1G1-13716811/the-fragility-of-consciousness-lonergan-and-the-postmodern
    Good Luck,
    Dave Meder

    • Dear Dave,
      Thanks for leaving a comment – and a helpful one at that!
      Yes, I am quite familiar with Lonergan’s work; there is one reddresstheology post on Being-in-Love and he is written into my Resurrection Epistemology essay which you can find on the Writing page.
      For a long time I tried to shape my topic around Lonergan’s work but for some reason, not entirely clear to me, I couldn’t get it to work. I think it may have something to do with the intensely logical nature of his project. I read a really interesting article examining the difference in Lonergan’s work pre and post receiving some ‘spiritual consolation’ in his personal experience of God which in itself would have made an interesting PhD! (I should blog about that now that I think about it.) So, in the end I opted for the more problematical von Balthasar who takes me further into both continental philosophy and mystical spirituality. No doubt I will return to Lonergan when the time is right!
      Thanks again for your interest: I wonder what you will make of this comment on Lonergan?!

      • Hi Chelle,
        I think there might (I write this in the most tentative way as I came to Lonergan as an Organizational psychologist, definitely not a theologian) be an article that could help you connect Lonergan to your project of finding a starting point for discussion of religious and ethical matters. In it Robert Doran describes Lonergan as providing the basis for establishing a “common ground” for such conversations. Interestingly, rereading it, I noticed where he also references an article he wrote describing how Lonergan and von Balthasar need one another. The article includes this quote:
        “ Lonergan asks whether in the realm of religious experience there exists any unassailable fact, and with the French psychologist of religion Olivier Rabut he finds the answer in the existence of love. “It is as though a room were filled with music though one can have no sure knowledge of is source. There is in the world … a charged field of love and meaning; here and there it reaches a notable intensity; but it is ever unobtrusive, hidden, inviting each of us to join And join we must if we are to perceive it, for our perceiving is through our own loving” (Method in Theology 290).”
        The relevant section begins on page 4. http://www.shu.edu/catholic-mission/lonergan/upload/Why_Lonergan_Father_Doran_speech.pdf

        With regard to the excerpt on your blog, I have to say that your interpretation of Lonergan would not be shared by many. Just one example (if you want to talk more about this kind of thing I’d be happy to). You described Lonergan’s experiencing as the world of common sense. In L, common sense refers to the individual’s understand of how things relate to the individual. Experience is the “raw data” whose meaning is elemental and only understood through detachment.
        You might also find the first three sections of Ch. 4 of Method in theology interesting.
        I really enjoy and get a great deal from your blog.
        Good luck in finishing your dissertation, you won’t believe how good you will feel when its completed.

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