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Surprised by the Feminine

An interview with the author of Surprised by the Feminine: A Rereading of C. S. Lewis and Gender

Published on:
July 17, 2017
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5 min.
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Monika Hilder’s insights on feminism and our chauvinistic culture have long intrigued us—she’s a respected educator, author, and speaker. Essentially, her argument boils down to this: our culture is biased toward characteristics typically associated with “masculine” behavior like self-assertion, conquest, and autonomy. She suggests that as long as we measure success by these flawed characteristics, we are buying into a chauvinistic mentality. 

She frames her discussion of feminism in terms of two Western models of heroism: classical (i.e., “masculine”) and spiritual (“feminine”). By posing the questions “Is a hero self-reliant? Can a hero be passive?” and insisting “How we answer these questions has to do with which of the two Western heroic paradigms we see life by—classical or spiritual heroism,” Hilder challenges us to examine our own ideas of achievement, which may be more sexist than we’d like to admit.

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You talk about the dangers of sexism and how our culture is biased toward characteristics typically associated with “masculine” behavior. In your alternative model of spiritual heroism you list characteristics like imagination, care, and love. Tell us how a spiritually heroic ethic of interdependence, care, and humility might look tangible in our day-to-day lives?

Typically I see the qualities that we associate with the “feminine,” imagination, care, and love, as the corrective model to the more conventional “masculine” heroic model of conquest. If you look at the classical hero traits as being associated with the masculine, I think it is a fair argument to link the spiritual with the feminine. I believe the Western spiritual heroic model is the biblical one. And an important thing to keep in mind is that these different qualities are all human qualities.

One of the things that I think we need to recover, because it is at great risk in our society, is to actually honour the voices we disagree with. Conversation is very important as opposed to, “I can’t talk to you because you don’t agree with this. You have upset me. I am offended.” If we could begin by having a spirit of generosity and kindness that would be a starting place. 

I think we need to recover conversation without compromising our individuality. I can learn from people that I disagree with. Maybe I won’t arrive at the exact same conclusion. Maybe I won’t be converted to that opinion. However, because that person is made in the image of God I need to listen to that person and know that I can learn and respect and come to greater understanding. I never have the right to say, “I don’t need you, shut up.” That’s not an option. Unless you are a classical hero because then you must conquer and abolish all voices that you don’t like.

You discuss cultural chauvinism in terms of “the privileging of masculine characteristics” and a focus on self-reliance and autonomy. What do you see as a problem with the quest for independence?

To put in bluntly, there is no such thing as autonomy. As the demonic character Screwtape says in Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, “the joke is that the word ‘Mine’ in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything. In the long run either Our Father or the Enemy will say ‘Mine’ of each thing that exists, and specially of each man.” Throughout his writing Lewis illustrates the logical impossibility of final autonomy in a moral universe. Autonomy is an illusion. We will belong either to God or the devil. I agree with him. Often what we seek in autonomy is genuine choice: however, we can really only have freedom of will through submission to God. What we want in autonomy is actually only possible through the paradox of submission. 

What we want in autonomy is actually only possible through the paradox of submission.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis speaks about how in our attempt to be individualistic and original we actually become all the same. Sounds funny, right? But he asserts, and so do I, that it is only through the paradox of submission and obedience, it is only in Christ, that we actually become truly ourselves: that we receive personality. It is our fallen human fear which assumes that to submit would mean loss, but the paradox is that the loss is actually the gain. 

Speaking of a paradox, you’ve suggested, “unlike classical martial valor exercised in order to establish worldly power through brute force, spiritual heroism requires inner valor in order to establish the kingdom of heaven through humility.” It seems that “humility” or even “interdependence” could come across as passive and inactive. The word “valor” implies action, though. How do you see action and valor playing out in spiritual heroism?

I think a big problem we have when we think of action or agency is that we misunderstand passivity. Passivity really has more to do with receptivity and listening—essentially, and ultimately, receiving from God. So, for example, when Mary says, “Yes, I agree to be the mother of God,” there is agency in that. It is that kind of receptivity/passivity which gives birth to life. And we’re all called to be that. To become pregnant with God. 

To me, the really important part to get is that activity really has to do with motivation. From the classical perspective, people’s motivation for activity and valor is for the purpose of self-glorification or warfare—i.e., it’s selfish. That is not to say activity itself is bad. A spiritual or biblical hero can definitely be active. However, again, we get back to what is motivating our activity.

This goes along with the Augustinian saying, “love and do as you will”: the key in an activity is for it to be rooted in love. We appreciated what you said about the importance of respecting others enough to listen to them. Considering that you deal so often with the topic of feminism, could you speak to why we have such a hard time actually responding to and listening to each other about the tough questions? 

Ultimately, I feel that all people’s responses to some extent—maybe to a large extent—when it comes to an unwillingness or inability to truly listen to the other, harken back to an injury that we have experienced. And women have had them. So have men. What I am saying is that we can speak out of our woundedness in the same way that we can listen out of woundedness. So, when we listen to anybody, I think we really need to keep in mind that we live in a broken planet; we are all injured, and we all in fact injure others—knowingly or unknowingly. I love how Lewis says, “We are all fallen creatures and all v[ery] hard to live with.” In that sense, we all have to understand why this particular topic is so important for each person. Because it’s that person’s answer to his or her woundedness.

Basically, I am wanting us all to respect where we’re coming from and to come alongside each other—and so move toward the best answer to our woundedness. This we see in Christ.

Monika Hilder
Monika Hilder has published journal articles and book chapters on George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, L. M. Montgomery, Madeleine L’Engle, literature education, and three books: Surprised by the Feminine: A Rereading of C. S. Lewis and Gender, The Gender Dance: Ironic Subversion in C. S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy, and The Feminine Ethos in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. She has also published short fiction, drama, and poetry in various journals, and has completed a number of children’s picture book stories, including Beppo’s Magic Song, Keltie and the Dragon Who Ate Words, and Paper Stars for Christmas.
Matthew and Joy Steem
Matthew Steem and Joy Steem have works in Mythlore, Relief: A Journal of Art and Faith, Converge, Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics, Off the Page, Clarion Journal of Spirituality and Justice, and White Gulls & Wild Birds: Essays on C. S. Lewis, Inklings and Friends & Thomas Merton (2015).

Cover image by JJ Ying.

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