In Out of the Depths (published in 1999 under the title La mal au feminin) Brazilian feminist theologian Ivone Gebara examines the meaning of evil and salvation in women's lives. Gebara seeks to provide a feminist phenomenology of evil through a consistent focuson women's concrete experience. She wants to let women's stories speak for themselves to reveal the types of evil borne by women as well as the nature of salvation from evil. Gebara critiques the tendency of traditional Christian theology to impose a supposedly universal understanding of evil that is far removed from the realities of women's lives. Well aware of the danger for feminist theology to fall into the same universalizing trap, she stresses throughout the book that evil and salvation come in many forms.
In chapter one Gebara examines evil through "witnesses" from literature, history, and contemporary Brazilian life. They reveal several forms of evil: women's lack of ownership (of their bodies), women's lack of power, women's lack of education, women's lack of worth (to self and others), and the "evil attributed to skin color." For example, to describe the evil associated with women's lack of education, Gebara recounts the history of Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz, deprived of the opportunity to study and write poetry by ecclesiastical authorities. To examine women's lack of worth, she describes the situation of young Brazilian women involved in the sex-trade governed by largely unchallenged cultural values that define women's bodies as usable and disposable.
Chapter two asserts the importance of seeing women's experiences of evil in the context of gender oppression. She argues that a dualist anthropology that assumes women's inferiority to men has permeated traditional theologies of evil and suffering and the ways these have functioned differently in men's and women's lives. Gebara calls into question traditional notions of the value of sacrifice in their tendency to "encourage a pleasure in suffering" particularly in women (88). Importantly, she argues that an emphasis on accepting suffering as a cross prevents us from distinguishing between suffering caused by injustice and "that existential anguish present in every human life" (90). In its place Gebara recommends a focus, not on Jesus' sacrifice, but rather on his works of justice and our own call to resist evil and struggle for justice for self and others.
Chapter three provides a brief but important analysis of "The evil that women do." Here Gebara points to the ways in which some women, within the structure of patriarchy, have occasion to oppress others, both women and men. In chapter four, Gebara argues that salvation must be re-envisioned. While she does not deny end of time eschatology she prefers to lift up a much less final and more fragile understanding of salvation. For Gebara life is inevitably a mixture of good and evil, and she sees salvation from evil in the everyday acts of resistance against it, for instance in seemingly small acts of kindness and in the desire to go on living despite misery.
In the final chapter, Gebara discusses the implications of her understanding of evil and salvation for our image of God. She coins the term esse-diversity as an image capable of encompassing the mystery of God, the value of all life forms, and the essential relatedness of all reality: ". . . all things live in God and God lives in everything. . . . God is that reality that penetrates, crosses, and vivifies every other reality, beyond any good or evil named or carried out by human beings" (172-173). Gebara argues that this image of God has the capacity to ground the kind of salvific acts she calls for, those that honor life in the daily concrete struggle against that which diminishes life.
At certain points Gebara's argument is given to imprecision and internal contradiction. Gebara seems to consider evil and suffering synonymous. This confusion fails to distinguish between moral and natural evils on the one hand and their effect in human beings, which is often suffering. Gebara risks contradicting her condemnation of evil and call to resistance against it in her treatment of life as a mixture of good and evil. Here she seems to be saying that what we name as evil is really just a natural part of life that only seems evil to us. The resulting ambiguity runs the risk of lapsing into a form of sentimentality that fails to acknowledge the true negativity of evil and its consequent suffering. Further, if life is necessarily a balance between what we call good and evil, what becomes the basis for that resistance to evil for which she calls?
Gebara's book provides a bold and rich discussion of an important topic. Her treatment of evil and salvation remains consistently faithful to women's concrete experiences of suffering. Because of both the strengths and the weaknesses of her argument, this book would serve well as a text in a graduate-level course on feminist theology, Christian anthropology, or eschatology. It is a thought-provoking and inspiring read.