Act: Inspiration

Separate or Relational and Truly Rational? A Few Notes on Gender, Nature, and Modernity’s Patriarchal Heritage

March 1, 2023

Everything that lives is constituted by relationships with everything else. Accordingly, it is of profound importance if we understand ourselves as conditioned by, dependent on, and participating in such relationships; or if we try to dissolve them, disentangle ourselves from them, or objectify and control them as something fundamentally other than ourselves. The attitude by which we relate to that on which we are dependent may not only be restricted to one area in life. It may be grounded deep in our psychologies and affect how we relate to that which is different from us in general: for men, it means how men relate to women, but it may also impact on how men, and humans in general, relate to nature. In this short article, I will point to possible connections between patriarchal structures aiming at controlling women, and the ways in which human in general have related to nature over the last centuries.

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In my recent book on theological anthropology in the Anthropocene, I argue that “Human relations to nature are profoundly interconnected with issues about gender and sexuality. Simultaneously, the tension between domination and control versus love and recognition is not only a question about what is given priority in culture. It is a question about how ideals about gender modulate the inner psychological world of humans in ways that shape relationships with other humans and toward nature. Hence, it is necessary to develop a critical approach to prevailing and still dominant attitudes toward gender and analyze how it may be connected with humans’ relationship with nature” (Henriksen 2023, 129–30). This is not a profoundly new insight but emerges from recognitions made by various scholars over the last 80 years. We can elaborate on it by looking into how thinkers from different angles may contribute to the necessary considerations about how the relationship between genders and the human relationship with nature may be two sides of the same coin. Moreover, it may also shed light on how we deal with and shape the constitutive relationship mentioned above.

Adorno and Horkheimer’s famous book The Dialectic of Enlightenment focuses on the practices underlying modern understanding of human beings and their rationality. They see these practices as intimately linked to dominion over nature. According to them, nature is the other of human rationality. Nature is, therefore, not determinative for an understanding of practical reason – the use of reason by which we define what is right and good. However, by defining human reason as what defines the specifically human mode of being in the world, and thus also seeing reason as being in opposition to nature, the consequence is that human existence undermines itself. (Adorno and Horkheimer 1997, 54–55).

When Adorno and Horkheimer argue that modern rationality depends on denying that the human himself (sic!) is (part of) nature, it has profound implications for how they understand rationality: Rationality masters nature and is that to which nature is subjected and by which it is controlled. This othering of nature is, in their view, also comprising women, among others, to the extent that they have also been defined as lacking in rationality, with what this has led to in terms of denying them the right to independence, political participation, etc. Against this backdrop, it can be argued that the Enlightenment framing of “nature” undermines its emancipatory power for some members of the human species and has delimiting consequences for other species: the hierarchy established by this notion of rationality places men above women (who are considered less rational and closer to nature) and humans in general above and outside nature.

The Enlightenment approach to ethics, which excludes nature from rationality, thus instigates the profound problem of how to include that which is ignored, overlooked, and fundamental for the continued existence of life in all its various forms on the planet – an approach that would comprise nature as well as women. The understanding of women and nature as separate objects not constitutive for human rational conduct, and therefore as subjected to male dominion, control, and “rationality,” proves to entail a severe reduction of the role that they play in human life and for human life. It marginalizes fundamental, created conditions as less important, rational, or valuable. The othering that defines (male) humanity as being in contrast to (female) nature is misleading and has severe theoretical, ethical, and spiritual consequences.

The downplaying of the constitutively relational character of human life has severe consequences for both the relationship with other humans and with nature. Another scholar who has highlighted some of the same issues is Catherine Keller. She questions a predominant ideal in Western culture about how separateness is necessary to become a self. This ideal affects how humans relate to nature and the rest of creation. Instead of promoting an ideal about separateness that also entails a necessary othering of that which is not me, cf. above – it is necessary to recognize that interdependence plays a constitutive role in the development of selfhood. Keller argues that so far, “separation and sexism have functioned together as the most fundamental self-shaping of our culture. That any subject, human or nonhuman, is what it is only in clear division from everything else, and that by nature and by right, exercise the primary prerogatives of civilization.” (Keller 1986, 2). She is well aware that her criticism of self can be seen as an attack on ideals related to “becoming separate, autonomous, and on this basis socially responsible persons.” However, she also, on the other hand, recognizes that the “unique integrity of a focused individuality, traditionally linked to the independence of a clearly demarcated ego, represents an irrefutable value, indeed a touchstone for any liberating theory of interrelation” (Keller 1986, 2).

According to Keller, separation is profoundly entrenched in a patriarchal society. It affects human relationships with nature, as well. Behind this ideal is the tacit recognition of human vulnerability that the awareness of the dependence on the other(s) activates. Separation serves as the modus in which one can shield or defend oneself from such vulnerability. The defense mechanism can be identified in what Keller characterizes as “the denial of the other’s immanence and of the self’s impermanence.” (Keller 1986, 201). Keller spells out the long-term consequences of this in a way that points to the fatal impact this form of selfhood, which denies the significance of dependence and close relationships, may lead to: “The defensiveness of the ego springs not only from a primal fear of mother projected upon every subsequent other. The matricidal impulses (translating, as we have argued, into the more overt patricidal competition) convey an ultimately cosmocidal—and by implication globally suicidal—urge. The self cannot in fact extract itself from the world it kills, and death by metaphysical objectification now attains to its ultimate realization.” (1986, 201, my emphasis).

Separateness is the source of human objectification of the world. Objectification and reification are presuppositions for controlling and distancing oneself not only from nature and from others but also from one’s vulnerability. Thereby, the self’s experiential potential becomes restricted or impeded because relationships condition its ability to grow and mature. The shielding of oneself due to fear of connection also impacts the ability to enjoy, to give oneself over to another, to be open to the overwhelming and the awe in experiencing nature, and take in the full extent of what it means to be an embodied being, with lust and desire, longing and mourning, reciprocity and responsibility. All of these elements manifest themselves only fully in a relational mode. The possibility to experience any other in a mutual sense is exterminated from the separative self. In an Anthropocene context, these elements need to be foregrounded in a discussion about gender and sexuality as well as with regard to the human relationship with nature. As gender roles are not naturally given, how they are developed and shape the ability to perceive oneself, others, and the rest of creation as vulnerable and in need of care and protection should be given attention, instead of focusing on aims at reducing and controlling diversity. To celebrate diversity is to celebrate that which allows for a deeper and richer experience of the world.

A final voice that helps to elaborate considerations about these issues is Grace Jantzen. According to her, death belongs in various ways to the western symbolic repertoire established by men. She holds that the “meanings and implications sedimented into our subjectivities about death entails that “it is part of a construction of human subjectivity which preoccupies western culture and saturates our habitus in self-perpetuating necrophilia” (Jantzen 2004, 31). Death is the utmost manifestation of objectification and control.

Jantzen identifies the phenomenon of natality as an alternative to death. Natality means to be embodied, but also to be vulnerable. This allows for the flourishing of the whole person at the present to be in focus, and this focus can impede conceptions that separate mind and body, rationality and sensuality, and the denial of the significance of the body, the earth, and human justice and flourishing (Jantzen 2004, 36-37). The force of the reference to natality is that it points to fundamental features of human existence that cannot be done away with, and which also suggest alternative approaches to how human cultivate their relationships with other participants in creation, as well as with their own embodied existence: it is “a conceptual category requires a positive attitude to bodies and materiality, to the flourishing of this world in all its physical richness.”(ibid., 37). Thus, it becomes important to attend to the web of relationships to which we belong, not only with other humans, but with the natural world, as well, and to work for its flourishing. Moreover, it is fundamentally relational, because “it is not possible to be born alone: there must be at least one other person present, and she, in turn, was born of someone else. To be natal means to be part of a web of relationships, both diachronous and synchronous: it means, negatively, that atomistic individualism is not possible for natals” (ibid., 37-38).

Violence and control, separation and subjection disrupt flourishing, with death as the final outcome and the end of all possibilities, but natality allows for hope. It means that “new possibilities are born, new freedom and creativity, the potential that this child will help make the world better. Freedom, creativity, and the potential for a fresh start are central to every human life and are ours in virtue of the fact that we are natals” (2004, 38). Against this backdrop, one can argue that the overcoming of the destructive attitudes and practices that presently continue to dominate human relationships with nature require that humans focus on alternative attitudes and experiences than those hitherto prevalent. It means taking into consideration experiences that are gendered, and a recognition of women’s experiences as constitutive for a fully rational and viable relationship with nature (cf. Henriksen 2022). It means the development of different psychologies and social mindscapes that more fully recognize the constitutive relationships and relational experiences. This may provide some of the means for liberating both humans and nature from the structures of control, misplaced desires, and the discursive and material practices that gravitates towards further destruction of the conditions for life on the planet.


Adorno Th. W and Horkheimer, E. (1997). Dialectics of Enlightenment. London: Verso.

Henriksen, Jan-Olav (2022). Climate Change and the Symbolic Deficit of the Christian Tradition. London: Bloomsbury.

Henriksen, Jan-Olav (2023). Theological Anthropology in the Anthropocene: Reconsidering Human Agency and its Limits. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jantzen, Grace (2004). Foundations of Violence. Death and the Displacement of Beauty. London: Routledge.

Keller, Catherine (1986). From a Broken Web. Separation, Sexism, and Self. Boston: Beacon Press.


Photo by Sam Valdez on Unsplash

Jan-Olav Henriksen

Jan-Olav Henriksen is professor of systematic theology at the MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion, and Society, and teaches and does research in all areas of that discipline, although his main subject is Philosophy of Religion. He has supervised almost 30 doctoral students for their PhD, and has presently 7 PhD-students under supervision, in addition to master students. His present research topic focuses on different dimensions in the relationship between God and human experience, as well as on religion interpreted from a pragmaticist angle. He also holds a keen interest in the conditions for religion in a post-secular society.

Tags: interbeing, patriarchy, relationship with nature, separation from nature