Jottings on Sin: Relating feminist and mimetic hamartiologies?

I went on a database crawl last night looking for material by Mary McClintock Fulkerson, and have read lightly through a few papers that have prompted these still-embryonic thoughts about connections between the understandings of sin in traditional, feminist, and mimetic theologies.

Hamartiology is a five-dollar word that didn’t appear on the vocabulary list in my intro theology course, but it means the theology of sin. One might consider this part of soteriology (the theology of salvation), if one is oriented towards sin as “that from which we must be saved”; or perhaps part of theological anthropology (the theology of human nature), if one is oriented towards sin as “the fallenness of creation.”

I tend to think of “original sin” as a shorthand expression corresponding to the question “what the heck is wrong with the world,” and I was impressed by Reinhold Niebuhr‘s proposal that original sin was a response to the existential anxiety experienced by human beings when they realize that they cannot control their surroundings well enough to guarantee their own safety. As I recall from my professor’s explanation, Niebuhr argued that the impulse to dominate and control those around us is the typical human response to this anxiety, and constitutes original sin. (That would make existential anxiety the “occasion of original sin,” one might say.) My professor went on to describe a feminist critique of this position that argued there was a gendered difference in the typical human response to this anxiety, and that while men typically responded by inappropriately forcing their will on others, women typically responded by inappropriately abdicating their moral agency. I found this, too, very convincing, less because of the gendered aspect of the difference, than because of the notion that domination and abdication are opposite and equally sinful extremes of the misuse of the will.

Mary Elise Lowe has an excellent review article (“Theological Update”) in the Summer 2000 issue of Dialog titled “Woman Oriented Hamartiologies: A Survey of the Shift from Powerlessness to Right Relationship.” She begins by reviewing the work of Valerie Saiving and Judith Plaskow who first made these feminist critiques:

[Plaskow] agreed with Saiving that sin for women is a failure to “live up to the obligations of their freedom” and argued the Niebuhr and Tillich had a universalized conception of sin as pride defined in male terms and based on male experience. In contrast, Saiving and Plaskow argued that women’s primary experience of sin was triviality or powerlessness, or what Niebuhr called the sin of sensuousness.

Many feminists accepted and built on the Saiving-Plaskow Hypothesis throughout the 1970s and 1980s. . . . In the 1990s, feminist, womanist, and eco-feminist theologians put forward new definitions and understandings of sin that move far beyond the early work of Saiving and Plaskow. (119)

Lowe goes on to review the work of eight contemporary feminist theologians, including Mary McClintock Fulkerson. In Fulkerson’s 1991 paper “Sexism as Original Sin: Developing a Theacentric Discourse,” she argued that

Feminists have identified the field of sexuality as the primary field of difference with potential for corruption. However, in this case discourse about sexual difference constitutes the anxiety-laden terrain of human life. . . . the kind of social reality this discourse creates [is] the overwhelming use of sexual difference for human exploitation.(671)

In the next issue of Dialog, Fulkerson responds to some of the points raised by Lowe’s article, and remarks on Lowe’s finding that “more recent feminists reject the gender binaries that falsely essentialized the early accounts of gendered sin.”(230)

Noting the importance of social location (and, I might add, of intersectionality) in contemporary feminism, she further observes that

recognition of the differences between women and the axes of race, class and sexuality in the construction of gendered subjects have broken up the false universals of white feminism.(231)

She’s concerned with avoiding the perils of a “generic universal anthropology” that obscure or erase the lived experience of persons and communities who are outside the discursively-privileged community.

Given the need to refuse false universals, what, then, do feminists want to say about the shared
or “universal” character of sin, a function of the term “original”? Is the increasing move to complexity compatible with the notion of original or universal sin? Or does it undermine it, such that your nuanced account is always someone’s false universal? (231)

But what struck me as I was reading all this is that all these “fields of difference,” or axes of privilege, are also Girardian markers of scapegoat candidates. It’s the ones who are different who get singled out as the focus for a mimetic crisis; and what are these axes of privilege, after all, but differences: differences — and typically embodied, visible differences — onto which significance has been historically or culturally inscribed. Differences, furthermore, which (as a cause, or a consequence?) tend to provoke the kind of repulsed fascination described by MT as scandal.

It seems to me that there are useful threads to be drawn between Niebuhr’s existential anxiety, Fulkerson’s “field of difference with potential for corruption,” and Girard’s mimetic rivalry. The religious or moral outrage of scandal, and its destructively fascinating effect, then maps onto the “corruption” in Fulkerson’s formulation.

Mimetic theory speaks most clearly about anthropology, and then about the disorders of desire that lead to violence. Mimetic theology thus speaks most clearly about theological anthropology, and then about the disorders of desire which constitute sin. Hamartiology is thus a very significant area in mimetic theology: although I’ve never heard the term used, I think it helpfully makes clear (at least, to those who know the theological jargon) just what kinds of theological claims are being made that might be productively engaged by those doing similar work from different perspectives.

What strikes me as important about these threads is that mimetic theory as I have generally encountered it is written primarily from the perspective of the crowd, and does not explicitly take up the concept of social location. Mimetic interpretations of scripture tend to focus on what Jesus teaches “us” about how not to be scandalized by “them.”

But what if you are one of “them”? The prescriptions of mimetic theory must be sensitive to that context, or they run the risk of re-inscribing existing structural sin onto the bodies of those who are already oppressed by those sinful structures. The person in the crowd who resists the scapegoat mechanism, who chooses to step forward, raise her voice in protest, and stand with the designated victim, is not the same as the person who has been seized by the crowd as its victim in the first place.

Maybe I’ve just been missing it, but I worry about the emphasis in MT of “refusing to participate in violence” blurring into “colluding in one’s own victimization.” This is why I’d really like to see more feminist and other liberation theologians seriously engage with mimetic theory, and vice versa.


Fulkerson, Mary McClintock. “Sexism as original sin : developing a theacentric discourse.” Journal Of The American Academy Of Religion 59, no. 4 (December 1, 1991): 653-675.

_______. “Feminist Thinking on Sin: Thoughts on an Update.” Dialog 39, no. 3 (September 1, 2000): 230-233.

Lowe, Mary Elise. “”Woman Oriented Hamartiologies: A Survey of the Shift from Powerlessness to Right Relationship.” Dialog 39, no. 2 (Summer, 2000):119-139.

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2 Responses to Jottings on Sin: Relating feminist and mimetic hamartiologies?

  1. Andrew says:

    I thought hamartiology sounded familiar – “hamartia” is the term I learned when studying tragedy as a literary genre; in that context it’s usually translated as “tragic flaw.”

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