A God who remains: ‘The Dark Womb’ by Karen O’Donnell

Content warning: in this post I review a book about pregnancy loss and infertility.

In her new book, ‘The Dark Womb’, Karen O’Donnell writes openly about her traumatic experience of miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy (when a fertilised egg implants itself outside of the womb) and infertility. She describes how her church community at the time failed to respond to her trauma in a theologically helpful way. This book emerges from wrestling with the disconnect between her experience and the theology on offer in the church. This book will speak particularly to those who have first- or second-hand experience of reproductive loss, but O’Donnell also invites theologians to use reproductive loss as a lens to see theological questions in a fresh way. She combines a number of approaches including feminist, trauma and apophatic theologies. (Apophatic theology is also known as negative theology, dealing with what we can’t say about God). Through these approaches O’Donnell crafts better ways to speak about miscarriage, and applies these insights to understandings of providence (the belief that God has a plan for our lives and the world), petitionary prayer (asking God to intervene in a situation), and hope.

In one sense I come to this book as an outsider. I only have experience of reproductive loss at a distance. I’m aware of a large number of friends and extended family members who have experienced infertility and miscarriage, but I’ve never been in a close enough relationship with them to offer any substantial support. To my knowledge, my close family members haven’t experience reproductive loss, but considering the historical, cultural and medical silence around miscarriage that O’Donnell highlights, I may be mistaken.[1] My one experience as a known sperm donor resulted in conception on the first attempt, and the birth of a healthy baby. As a gay man who grew up with no queer role models, my process of ‘coming out’ was accompanied by the death of any imagined future fatherhood. I had vivid dreams of babies dying in my arms, turning blue and shrivelling away, only later understanding this as a grieving for the death of myself as parent. So as someone for whom pregnancy was never a possibility, who let go of the idea of being a parent as a teenager, and who is at an emotional distance from those who have experienced reproductive loss, I approach O’Donnell’s book with humility. It has a lot to teach me.

I also come to this book as a theologian with a particular interest in hope. The first fires of my passion for theology were lit by eschatology (theology of ‘final things’), my MA dissertation was on a Quaker theology of hope, and I’ve been greatly shaped by the theology of Jürgen Moltmann and his influential book ‘Theology of Hope’ (1964). ‘The Dark Womb’ offers an important and different perspective, and challenges me to rethink aspects of my own position. In this post I will focus on what O’Donnell says about hope, but there’s a great deal more in her book. It’s a rich text with much to say to a wide range of readers, so I highly recommend you read the whole thing for yourself.

Miscarriage and hope

The nature of hope is a central issue to the person who miscarries and the people around them: ‘When a pregnant person miscarries, they miscarry not only a pregnancy but also the multitude of hopes bound up in that pregnancy.’[2] As hopes are dashed, people are quick to rush in with hopeful words. In O’Donnell’s experience many, if not all of these words have been unhelpful or worse.

Miscarriage disrupts the false hope of comfortable optimism. For those who are comfortable now, it’s easy to ‘hope’ for a comfortable future.[3] An aspect of such optimism is a belief in linear progress, that our trajectory is one of ever-increasing growth, that the future is inevitably brighter, that conception ends in the birth of a healthy baby. In several places, O’Donnell writes of how this understanding of linear progress is a Western concept, an understanding of the world that ‘is deeply rooted in the colonial quest.’[4] Theologically this is understood as ‘salvation history’, that, in the words of the old hymn, ‘God is working His purpose out, as year succeeds to year.’ The loss of a pregnancy destabilises hope built on the idea of linear, accumulative progress.[5] For those whose hopes are repeatedly decimated, it is clear that ‘there is no bend toward justice built into the mechanism of the universe.’[6]

This comfortable optimism turns into ‘toxic hope’ when it’s inflicted on the miscarrying person. When people talk about God having a plan for your life, or of miscarriage as some sort of lesson in faith, they are offering a toxic hope that ‘soothes the conscience of the one offering it but requires no action, imposes no ethical demand on that person.’[7] The words may be well intentioned, but they still cause harm: ‘Toxic hope wants to preserve its façade at the expense of your experience. Toxic hope kills.’[8]

Real hope is, quoting Terry Eagleton, ‘that which remains, that which is found when all else is stripped away.’[9] Quoting Shelly Rambo, hope is the ‘“weary trickle of love” that persists and carries on.’[10] It isn’t a quick skip to the end, vaulting over the desolation of Good Friday to get to the consolation of the Resurrection. Hope is the courage to remain in the raw reality of a hopeless Holy Saturday. Part of this ‘remaining’ in the present is embracing apophaticism, of having nothing to say, of resisting any temptation to find meaning in the situation. This is particularly important for those supporting the miscarrying person, who are witnesses to their trauma. They need to dwell in ‘a holy unknowing. A sacred bewilderment.’[11] We can hold hope and hopelessness together in tension in silence or wordless cries to God: ‘Hope and hopelessness overlap each other in this moment. Both are equally true and real, held in tension in an anguished cry of unsaying.’[12]

A hope that persists amidst hopelessness, that eschews all easy answers, that doesn’t turn away from the suffering at hand, and doesn’t expect the universe to bend naturally towards justice, becomes a hope of practical, ethical action in the present.

Some reflections

In my experience, the kind of hope most attractive to Quakers is that which focusses on practical action in the present, hope as something that can be practiced and cultivated, as offered in the books of Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone,[13] and David Gee.[14] There is much to appreciate about this understanding of hope, but one difficulty I have is that it leaves little room for God’s transcendence. Coming from a non-religious background, it was the vision of God’s transcendent future that opened the door to me becoming a Christian. This is perhaps why the theology of Moltmann resonates so strongly with me. I found his understanding of the resurrection as that which also brings justice to the dead to be a transformative theological idea. Hope in God’s transcendence future energises me in the here and now, and is something I can’t let go of. Whereas Quakers are at ease in talking about practical action in the present, they are far less comfortable at discussing transcendence, with such beliefs sometimes seen as irrelevant or even divisive. Silence is often used to cover diversity of belief within the community, to the point where it becomes very difficult for us to communicate and articulate a shared vision. Quaker talk of present action with no reference to transcendence can take me to a place where God might as well be dead, and we’re left with a fragmented and anxious community with no firm hope to hold onto.

I’m not entirely sure whether O’Donnell rejects this kind of eschatological hope in God’s transcendence or not. As well as writing ‘I have faith and hope in such an eschatological future,’[15] she also writes about a hope ‘that rejects eschatological promise for a focus on the here and now.’[16] In her critique of eschatological hope, I feel O’Donnell is a little hard on Moltmann, contrasting ‘a Moltmannian sense of optimistic hope, grounded in an account of salvation history’ with ‘an ethical hopelessness grounded in genuine solidarity.’[17] My reading of Moltmann is that he is against cheap optimism and stories of inevitable progress, and very concerned with forms of hope that energise ethical action in the present. I think there’s much in his work that indicates he’d be on board with O’Donnell’s proposals here. However, I don’t think the question here is whether we can hope in God’s transcendence or not. O’Donnell is asking ‘what theology is useful and life-giving in the context of reproductive loss?’, and is clear that ‘denying real-life experience in favour of imagined hopeful future scenarios is dangerous.’[18] Perhaps there’s a similarity here with George Lindbeck’s thoughts on the contextual nature of theological truth. When a Crusader shouts “Christ is Lord” as he cleaves the heads of his enemies, the context renders the words untruthful.[19] Speaking about hope in the resurrection of the dead to someone who has miscarried is not truthful in that context, because it doesn’t embrace the truth of the miscarrying person’s experience. The comparison between these two situations is even more apt because of O’Donnell’s description of ‘toxic hope’ as theological violence.[20] Hope in God’s transcendent future may be of upmost importance to me, but I can’t assume it’s a hope that will speak truthfully to those in the midst or aftermath of traumatic experiences.

This book offers me a way to hold hopelessness in tension with hope, with an emphasis on hope as present-focused ethical action, whilst still allowing hope in a transcendent God to be part of the equation, if perhaps tangentially. By approaching hope in this way, I’m able to better appreciate the hope of writers like Macy, Johnstone and Gee better. I can’t let go of hope in God’s transcendence, but I can’t ignore all the reasons there are to despair. I don’t want to have to choose between hope and hopelessness, and O’Donnell’s work helps me see I don’t have to. Approaching God apophatically, I can hold hope and hopelessness in tension in a wordless cry of unsaying. O’Donnell’s words about the God who remains, the ‘thin weary thread of love [that] is constant and reliable,’[21] help me better understand the words of James Nayler, an early Quakers who experienced the trauma of torture and imprisonment. He spoke of a Spirit whose power was its ability to endure all things: ‘Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself… I found it alone, being forsaken.’[22] Quakers, who know the importance of silence and know the dangers of trying to say too much about God, will find this an inspiring book. For people like myself who only experience reproductive loss at a distance, this book is an important preparation for when people in our faith communities experience miscarriage and infertility, and need f/Friends who can wordlessly witness to and accompany them in their grief, who know when to speak and when to remain silent.

[Featured image photo by Stephan H. on Unsplash]

[1] Karen O’Donnell, The Dark Womb: Re-Conceiving Theology through Reproductive Loss. (London: SCM Press, 2022), 13–22.

[2] O’Donnell, 110.

[3] O’Donnell, 116.

[4] O’Donnell, 121.

[5] O’Donnell, 19.

[6] O’Donnell, 123.

[7] O’Donnell, 115.

[8] O’Donnell, 117.

[9] O’Donnell, 115.

[10] O’Donnell, 50.

[11] O’Donnell, 126.

[12] O’Donnell, 129.

[13] Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy (Novato, Calif: New World Library, 2012).

[14] David Gee, Hope’s Work: Facing the Future in an Age of Crises (London: Darton Longman and Todd, 2021).

[15] O’Donnell, The Dark Womb, 116.

[16] O’Donnell, 132.

[17] O’Donnell, 130.

[18] O’Donnell, 119.

[19] George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, 25th anniversary ed (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 50.

[20] O’Donnell, The Dark Womb, 186–87.

[21] O’Donnell, 11.

[22] Britain Yearly Meeting, Quaker Faith & Practice: The Book of Christian Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain., 5th ed., 2013, para. 19.12.

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