Book Review: Out of the Depths: Women’s Experience of Evil and Salvation by Ivone Gebara

Gebara, Ivone. Out of the Depths: Women’s Experience of Evil and Salvation. Translated by Ann Patrick Ware. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002. Pp. viii + 211. Paper. $20.00. ISBN: 0800634756

Reviewed by: María Teresa Dávila
Boston College

Ivone Gebara constructs a theology of suffering and salvation from the perspective of poor women. Using a feminist phenomenology Gebara describes the experiences of evil that women suffer, the evil that women do, and poor women’s experiences of salvation in their everyday lives. She uses the category of gender to explain how the cultural, religious, and social understandings of male and female are part of women’s understanding of suffering, evil, and salvation. Her central goal is to construct a theology of suffering and salvation that sustains a unified vision of human life where evil and salvation are present in interrelated ways. Sustaining this goal leads her to make statements about suffering and salvation that confront traditional notions of the suffering of Jesus Christ and the salvation present in the cross and resurrection.

Gebara’s feminist phenomenology keeps the text close to the women’s stories used. These texts describe situations of evil (illness, hunger, sexual exploitation, and meaninglessness) and salvation (finding enough trash to burn for fuel, a conversation with a supportive friend, the smile of a dying child) as experienced by women. Her commitment to gender analysis enables her to evaluate the ways in which traditional notions of suffering and evil have been manipulated throughout history to sustain and empower the experiences of men and those in power at the expense of women and the poor. By choosing stories of poor women, Gebara sustains the preferential option for the poor and therefore contributes to the corpus of liberation theology with a feminist volume.

This book is consistent with Gebara’s earlier works but also more radical. She sustains the unified anthropology present in her previous work, such as her essay in Mujeres Sanando la Tierra and her book coauthored with María Clara Bingemer, Mary: Mother of God, Mother of the Poor. Theological anthropology has suffered from the dualism that divides the divine from the human, the male and the female, the rational from the emotional, the human and the non-human, the individual and community, and, as Gebara shows in this volume, the experiences of suffering and evil from the experiences of salvation. She proposes overcoming this dualism by emphasizing that evil and salvation are experienced in tandem in everyday life. Life’s ambiguity should be reflected in the understanding of evil and salvation in order to bring these concepts closer to human experience. Such a unified vision addresses the dualistic distortions that turn good and evil into absolute and opposing categories. Gebara places women’s experiences at the center of this work, critiquing traditional doctrines of evil and salvation in their distorted and oppressive constructions throughout history, such as the reading of the figure of Eve and the transmission of original sin.

The introduction and Chapter 1 present women’s stories of evil and salvation taken from women’s literary works, both fictional and biographical. Gebara explains her phenomenological method, her debt to Paul Ricoeur, and a feminist correction of his method. She establishes that women have a different experience of evil than men, which traditional universalized views of evil have ignored. Examples include the evil that women suffer from having a sick or dying child, the concern for putting food on the table for one’s family, and the burden of caring for the sick and dying in a community. These experiences are particular to women because they are burdened with specific assumptions about their role and duties in society.

Chapters 2 and 3 use gender as a hermeneutical tool to analyze the evil suffered and done by women. Traditional views of self-sacrifice, suffering, and guilt are heavily dependent on gender. For Gebara sacrifice easily becomes manipulated as a tool of reward for those on the lower strata of society, whose suffering is interpreted as God’s will, their particular “cross.” Their sacrifice, linked to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, represents obedience to the Father, translated to obedience to the male figures that represent divine power. She continues the gender analysis of the way women cooperate with the evil they suffer, such as sustaining social structures that are oppressive, accepting sexual norms that objectify them and using those norms for self-advancement, and ignoring the oppression lived by other women.

The most radical point is her discussion of salvation in Chapter 4. Gebara critiques the notion of an absolute male suffering on the cross as the criterion for all suffering. Instead, she presents the human experience of a plurality of crosses that appear in life alongside ways of escaping them: “The issue is to recognize that the salvation experienced by Jesus, as well as our own salvation, does not occur automatically through the cross imposed by an imperial power but through promoting relationships of justice, respect, and tenderness among human beings. In this way the cross is temporarily laid aside, even as we know that it will reappear in other forms” (113). Salvation is not a state achieved once and for all. It is experienced and lost and it is beyond moral norms. For Gebara, “theories of universal salvation” can be corrupted by ideological systems and be the cause of great harm, while the accumulated experience of a plurality of salvations that confront human selfishness and cruelty are a threat to such systems. In this case relatedness becomes a condition for life, of both evil and salvation, following the phenomenological approach that presents all created life in mutual relation.

Finally, Gebara confronts the vision of the “almighty” God through a gender and phenomenological analysis of power. The power of God is experienced in the very presence of God in the prayers of suffering women. The power of God is the hope to survive another day when all the odds are against life. God is the vision of alternatives to suffering, a vision that sustains hope and life, even if it is experienced in a fragile and temporary way. Gebara uses the examples of Sor Juan Inés de la Cruz and Isabel Allende to illustrate this vision of God as well as offer a feminist critique of male liberation theologians that sustain, in their language, the very distorted notions of God, suffering, and salvation that need liberation for women’s sake.

This book expands the reader’s views of suffering to include women’s experiences of crosses and salvations and how they should inform Christian theology but have too often been absent from it. Gebara’s claim about relativizing the suffering of the cross of Jesus Christ, considering it no greater than the suffering of poor women, is a difficult theological challenge. If one follows Gebara’s phenomenology throughout this radical claim is in accord with women’s experiences. But one may ask whether these claims leave Gebara outside the realm of Christian theology proper. A reader seeking different perspectives on traditional Christian symbols is left wanting more specific analysis of the tradition. On the other hand, others may appreciate Gebara’s refreshingly unapologetic stance with respect to the clash between women’s experiences and traditional theology.