Review: The Power and Vulnerability of Love: A Theological Anthropology

The Power and Vulnerability of Love: A Theological Anthropology

Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015 (224 pp, ISBN 978-1-4514-8467-0, $39.00)

While many theologians have believed that vulnerability is a result of sin, Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo turns this on its head in The Power and Vulnerability of Love: A Theological Anthropology. She does so by identifying vulnerability as a root state requiring a response which either increases the vulnerability of others in exchange for the privilege of some, or uses that very vulnerability to increase abundance for all through compassion. She contends that feminist, liberation and political theologies often overlook the existential elements and deeper spiritual issues which underlie the prevailing consciousness of domination. Her robust theological anthropology addresses this gap in the literature; the first section of the book is spent analyzing the complexity of vulnerability as embodied, relational reality which is violated, as she puts it, through choosing the coping mechanisms of anxiety, egotism and violence. All persons are vulnerable, she states, but some are made more or less vulnerable through privilege or lack thereof, something she calls the “violence of privilege.” Gandolfo states that the ability to disproportionally protect ourselves from vulnerability, known as privilege, creates more harm than necessary because it involves a mismanagement of communal resources which could be better spent.

Throughout the book, Gandolfo argues for a recognition that vulnerability is a universal condition that goes beyond gender, even as she grounds her more universal argument in the particularity of feminist insight of the body’s knowledge, particularly that of mother knowledge. In addition to her well-sourced theological anthropological argument in the first section, the strength of her book is its ability to focus tangibly on vulnerability. She does so through memoirs and personal connections to marginalized mothers from around the world, while also making universal claims and suggesting concrete points of action.

Drawing on her Catholic heritage, in Part Two Gandolfo identifies sources of resilience and resistance in the form of the Trinitarian incarnation, a love which is full of compassion and yet is invulnerable. This divine invulnerability, which Gandolfo acknowledges unsettles many feminists, can be a place of strength for those looking for a co-sufferer. Divine invulnerability protects our identity as imago dei from ever being truly destroyed. In Part Three, she argues that we can engage in practices of “suckling God”, of doing what we can on the human side of things to bring awareness of God into our memory, contemplation, and acts of solidarity. In the end, she writes that her book does not provide a solution to the problem of vulnerability, but rather it offers a way of turning toward redemption in which we can hold the particularity of maternal passion in tandem with, and in fact build upon it toward, agapic love.

Anyone interested in a theological anthropology grounded in the best of feminist epistemology, such as pastoral, practical and constructive theologians, will find this book useful. While Gandolfo’s Catholicism comes through in her reliance on divine love, she intentionally includes the stories, lives and theories of the nonspiritual to cast a wide net.

Laine Walters Young

Vanderbilt University

Religion, Psychology and Culture Program