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Women and Evil
by nell noddings
university of california press, 284 pages, $25 

For centuries theologians and philosophers have been struggling with the agonizing and bewildering problem of evil. Believing Jews and Christians cannot escape the perennial dilemma of reconciling the existence of evil with belief in an all-good and all-powerful God. Even the most persuasive exercises in theodicy are haunted by echoes from Archibald MacLeish’s J.B.: “If God is good, he is not God; if God is God, he is not good.”

In her new book Women and Evil, Nell Noddings attempts to look at the problem of evil in a new light — a specifically feminine, or rather feminist, light. What, she asks, is evil, what is woman’s relationship to evil, and what can we do about evil? And who is this God who permits it? Noddings’ answers to these questions have won her praise in feminist and leftwing circles; her book is hailed by Rosemary Ruether and Daniel Maguire as an “important contribution to philosophical ethics” and a work that should be “significant” in theological seminaries. The book is of theological interest, though perhaps not entirely in ways that the author intended.

Let us look at her findings. According to Noddings, history (including philosophy, theology, politics, societal structures) up to this point has obscured the nature of the problem of evil because all systems for dealing with it have been created, elaborated, and promoted by and for males. The problem is that males tend to think in terms of absolutes and in terms of power. This is why, Noddings tells us, so many world religions postulate an all-powerful and absolutely just and good God, and also why there is a belief in abstract and powerful evil. Because men have difficulty in dealing with paradox and ambiguity, they cannot accept the evil in themselves, and so they project it onto others: human enemies (which explains the prevalence of war) or an omnipotent God (which allows them to avoid their own responsibility). Noddings argues that the projecting of evil onto God and a mystical external realm creates “ethical terror” (fear of the Lord, of doing evil and not being forgiven) even as it allows men to distance themselves from others and thus avoid dealing with the evil within. (Women, by contrast, being more relational and better able to deal with ambiguity, are thus more apt to deal with evil in themselves and work out the evil in their relations with others.)

Men also tend to find more immediate “scapegoats” for evil — women. Noddings describes how for centuries women have been seen as leading men to evil, as themselves embodying evil. Since Aristotle’s time, she writes, women have come to be associated with the body and the material, and men with the mental and spiritual. Fear and hatred of the body and ambiguous beliefs and feelings about sexuality produced negative views of women, another instance of men experiencing “evil” but projecting it elsewhere. Noddings finds the Judeo-Christian tradition especially culpable in women’s denigration: there is the Adam and Eve story, with Eve held responsible for accepting the serpent’s temptation and leading man to sin; the Old Testament “uncleanness” references and practices; the long history of burning witches; even the veneration of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary, in this reading, has been revered by men because she is not sexual and thus not really womanly; and yet she is a mother, and motherhood, since it is necessary to bring about and bring up men, is a proper woman’s role.

In elaborating on traditional views of proper (non-evil) women’s roles, Noddings refers to Jung’s “feminine principle.” Women in this view are “essentially unconscious,” and that essence is basically good. The natural feminine attributes are empathy, nurturing, and caring for the emotional and physical wellbeing of those around them — attributes that arise from woman’s natural role as mother and protector. But should a woman try to “be like a man” and thus lose contact with her unconscious good, she will do evil. This belief, says Noddings, explains why women haven’t been heard in the moral debate about evil (to enter it they would have to become “conscious”).

The question now is “how much of the transmitted female model should we retain and affirm?” It is apparent that Noddings accepts much of the Jungian view of women. Women, she believes, are basically good and caring, and they should hold on to their nurturing feminine attributes, as long as they do not let themselves be oppressed through them. Men need to come to understand that women can be at once conscious (and part of the morality debate) and good.

Noddings next turns to the “phenomenology of evil.” Evil, whether physical or psychic, involves three basic conditions: pain, separation, and helplessness. These conditions are not always associated with evil; indeed, they are sometimes necessary, as in the pain of childbirth, the separation of mother and child, the helplessness of an infant. Noddings posits as an example of the relationship of these conditions to real evil the situation of a hopelessly ill elderly woman who endures excruciating pain, is separated from all loved ones, and is helpless to help herself.

Evil so conceived, Noddings indicates, will require of us some rethinking of our moral categories, some transpositions in our notions of good and evil. Thus the caring and nurturing response to the situation of the elderly woman would be euthanasia, which has generally been looked on with moral suspicion. Similarly, Noddings suggests, there are situations in which abortion is justified by circumstances and is therefore not evil. On the other side of the ledger, such traditional female “goods” as childbearing or housekeeping can be evil if their circumstances induce pain, separation, or helplessness.

What we have here and elsewhere in Noddings’ analysis is a relativist and “relational” look at evil, with no mention of sin and no clear-cut moral precepts. To determine what is evil, it is necessary first to look at the evil in ourselves, in others, and in the world Then, using our caring and empathetic skills and Noddings’ criteria, we can decide in each case what will cause the least unnecessary pain, separation, or helplessness to ourselves and/or to others. Women are better equipped than men to engage in this process; they are relational by nature and more attuned to human sympathies. They deal with evil as it needs to be dealt with”from a human rather than divine perspective.

Noddings’ theodicy relativizes God in the same way as it relativizes evil. Her God is a fallible god, one who is, like us, wrestling with evil: He “controls just so much and is perhaps still struggling toward an ethical vision.”

This sort of god “lovable and understandable to women” may be unattractive to many men because he cannot make absolute claims on us for worship, obedience, and authority, or if he makes such claims, we might be justified in challenging him and even charging the claim to his wicked or unfinished side. A fallible god shakes the entire hierarchy and endangers men in their relations to women, children, and animals and the whole living environment.

The claim of Women and Evil, then, is that we have got the God/evil problem wrong because we’ve been thinking about it all wrong. Power, hierarchies, authority, absolute right or wrong, pure essences of goodness and justice — these only exist in a male world. The truth is that everything, including god, is fallible (though one might wonder how that itself could be the truth if truth itself is fallible).

With her theodicy established, Noddings proceeds to discussions of pain (as “natural evil”), war, and terrorism and torture. She continues to emphasize differences in male/female perspectives. Were women in charge, she suggests, wars would be far less likely to break out. Women naturally do not want to see their sons and husbands killed; to the extent they have supported war in the past, it has been because they were supporting their men’s causes. But terrorism and torture would not necessarily disappear. They might still be employed by women in certain cases; a woman might resort to torture, for example, to force a person to disclose where her captive child was being held. In general, however, the suggestion is that if women ran the world, things would be not just different, but better.

Noddings’ concluding chapter, “Educating for a Morality of Evil,” discloses her not unexpected suggestions for the future. With a vision typical of Utopian “theologians” whose only real faith is in this-worldly peace and happiness, Noddings proposes that we give women power, and let women, and the femininity in men, rule. If women are allowed to be themselves, without being oppressed by men, and if in their naturally caring and concerned and nurturing manner, they are allowed to restructure education, politics, ethical systems, and religion”then the world can be morally transformed. And then, presumably, the fallible god will look down from a fallible heaven and be happy with what she sees. Finally.

Although maybe not. For all her hopes for new education, Noddings ends her book with the observation that optimism and progress are also male ideas; women, by contrast, have a tragic sense of life. But while we cannot hope to overcome evil, she writes, we can, through the influence of women, at least lessen it, and live so as to “give and take what joy we can from each other.”

This book is not without strengths. Noddings has some perceptive insights into the very real differences between women and men and into the social differences these personal differences make. Nor can one reject out of hand her arguments concerning the historical truth of women’s oppression.

But it is a comment on the impoverished state of theology today that her arguments should be received with theological seriousness. Can her fallible, struggling god possibly satisfy? Does it make sense to leap from the recognition of paradox and mystery to the conclusion that truth must not exist and that there can be no transcendent good and just God? It would be regrettable if on the basis of Noddings’ efforts readers reached the conclusion that women’s intellects are indeed so flawed that they cannot grasp the idea of an absolute. One hopes that non-sexist readers (of both sexes) will reject that possibility, and that the devout among them will offer a good-hearted and caring prayer for Noddings and for those who take her book seriously.

Maria McFadden is Managing Editor of the Human Life Review.