Passionate Embrace

Luther on Love, Body, and Sensual Presence

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Elisabeth Gerle
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , May
     338 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Martin Luther himself is a surprisingly marginal figure in Elisabeth Gerle’s study of his utility for feminist theology, Passionate Embrace: Luther on Love, Body, and Sensual Pleasure. Rather, Gerle sets up an intertextual web of magnetic fields with a host of feminist theologians, including Rosemary Radford Ruether, Catherine Keller, Carter Heyward, Grace Jantzen, and Virginia Burrus, occupying what might reasonably pass for a center in this decentered text. Scandinavian theologians, from the 19th-century Danish bishop N. F. Grundtvig through such figures as Anders Nygren and Gustaf Wingren form another important gravitational pole. Radical Orthodoxy makes an appearance as a foil, while contemporary reflections on body issues, postcolonial theories, and historical studies of Christianity also play an important role. Gerle situates Luther in this broad conversation, in a text that moves by carefully constructing various contemporary contexts in which Luther may have something to say. The principle of physics that the center of mass and the center of gravity need not align is a helpful heuristic for navigating Gerle’s text. A passing reference to Julia Kristeva makes the non-linearity of Gerle’s argument fall into place as significant in its own right. Depending on the reader’s sensibility, this non-linearity will either be exhilarating or frustrating; I found it a bit of both. In either case, what Gerle delivers is a thoroughly postmodern and relational Luther.

Martin Luther has generally not fared terribly well at the hands of feminist theologians, often for very good reason. From his description of woman as a nail that must be driven into a wall, to the Reformation’s destruction the convent as one of the few spaces for medieval women to exercise relative autonomy, to the emphasis on the self as sinner that reinforces the sense of inferiority Valerie Saiving diagnosed as the primary problem for women, Luther offers much fodder for feminist critique. Gerle does an excellent job of showing where Luther is a useful resource and conversation partner for feminist theology without glossing over the deeply patriarchal assumptions in his theology. Luther and feminist theology share a deep distrust of the ascetic impulse that splits soul and body. Gerle explores the manifestations of this split both in classical Christian spirituality and in contemporary forms of expectations of the perfectibility of the body and denial of its aging and dying processes. While Luther’s succinct presentation of salvation through faith alone in On the Freedom of a Christian takes the medieval distinction between an outer self and an inner self for granted, his theology subverts the mind/body dualism by treating salvation not as the soul’s ascent to God, but as the whole person’s acceptance of God’s loving embrace, an embrace known in the material world through the relation with the neighbor. 

Gerle frequently notes that the “churchification” of Luther’s message destroys this radically relational sense of the locus of God’s activity—on this ground she often returns to a move to distance her project from Radical Orthodoxy and its emphasis on the church as Christ’s body. She positions the book firmly with an affirmation of post-Christian secular society and does not see her work as a confessional study. This sense that theology must move beyond a narrow sense of the church as the locus of encounter with God to the neighbor wherever one finds her or him also justifies the structure of the book, which perfectly illustrates the temporal, geographical, social, historical, and political complexities of our relations with other people. One area in which Gerle could have deepened her sense of historical complexity is through a more rigorous engagement with the historicity of sexuality. While Luther is notoriously inconsistent on many topics, his inconsistency on sexual matters is one of the best examples I know of to explore the fact that naming “sexuality” groups a number of phenomena together that enables one to think about them in a specific way and that disaggregating sexual acts, desires, drives, and identities is the first step one must take when exploring past manifestations of sexual matters. At one point, Gerle raises awareness of this fact only to completely erase it by the next sentence: “The concept ‘sexuality’ has no sixteenth-century counterpart and appears nowhere in Luther’s writings. It is a modern concept, which was not used before at least the eighteenth century. Even so, it is quite obvious that Luther regarded sexuality as something natural for both women and men.” (112) Here, Gerle lets her project of reclaiming Luther for the present era overwhelm the historicist insights that govern the very theology for which she wants to use him. This slip points toward areas in which future work could develop the many exciting insights Gerle presents in the course of demonstrating Luther’s continued value for embracing our embodied existence with both its ecstasies and frailties.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dirk von der Horst is Instructor of Religious Studies at Mount St. Mary's University in Los Angeles.

Date of Review: 
June 1, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elisabeth Gerle is professor of ethics at Lund University and at Church of Sweden Research Department. Her recent books deal with religion and politics, Luther, politics, and the erotic.


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