Blizzards and God

In Kabbalistic thought, much emphasis is placed on the duality of God’s sexual identity. Without reference to physical form, God is both male and female. The spiritual aspects of the two genders express the characteristics of the God of Justice who is also the God of Mercy. Masculine strength combined with [feminine] compassion comprise the perfect balance without which divine rule cannot function. Mystics constantly emphasize the need for perfect balance between these two polar forces.       from: “The Sistine Secrets” by Benjamin Blech, professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University,  & Roy Doliner, humanities scholar, including Talmud, midrash, and Kabbalah.

I’ve quoted at length the academic and professional qualifications of these two writers and scholars to show they are not writing from a place of “New Age” weirdness as some would think. They are respected scholars and teachers in Hebrew scriptures and studies. They obviously have no trouble with the concept of “God” as both masculine and feminine.

I wonder why those who follow Christianity do? Is it the cultural heritage we’ve inherited from ancient Rome? The Western church is, after all, a Roman construction.

Sitting and watching our February blizzard out my window with its swirling winds and shifting white creates a nice, comfortable place for reflection. Certainly nothing outside calls me to go explore. I’ve been in Kansas blizzards: thanks, but no thanks. I’ll sit here and ponder.

But when you think about it, looking back at the early church and why the church refuses to recognize the feminine face of God and by extension the leadership of women, it’s a little like looking through a blizzard. Pretty fuzzy. Hard to get a handle on exactly what happened and why the church was so afraid of women.

Historically, we know that the focus of the early church shifted from Jerusalem when the temple was razed, the centers moving to Constantinople and Rome. Historically, we know that the Emperor Constantine used Christianity as a political tool; and we know priests and missionaries followed the Roman army as they conquered new territories.

But why, in this 21st Century, when so much is known and when so much information is at hand, is there such a knee-jerk reaction to the idea that God must be feminine, too? Why do so many insist on the pronoun “he” for God? Why, when so much scholarship gives us so much information, do so many churches insist on the later priest-redacted Genesis myth (the one where woman were made from Adam’s rib) rather than the earlier story where the creator god made man and woman as equals in image (oh, you didn’t know there were two creation stories?).

The wind blows from the north and the snow comes from the south. It whips in front of my window, circles back on itself in a fan of snow. I like watching natural elements when they are at their most fierce. They are, at base, elemental.

You’d think that after this many centuries, humanity would have evolved enough to be comfortable with the elemental whether the forces of nature or the forces of natural. Male and Female: God created them. Something certainly did.    

One of the arguments says, well, Jesus called God Father, and Jesus knew, so God must be a he. Now really, when you logically think about it, does that make sense? Of course Jesus spoke that way. His was in a first century male-dominated society. Women couldn’t even be reliable witnesses. Widows left with no son lost any property their husbands might have had and were forced to beg. Of course Jesus would say Father in a male-dominated culture. You sure wouldn’t say follow me and my mom.

But let’s go back to weather for a moment. We knew this storm was coming two days ago when it was barely forming down in Arizona. We even knew how much it would snow. Sure, the prediction could have been off by a couple of inches, but we knew that this was a giant storm and that it was coming. There was, in fact, such confidence in this forecast that schools were closed yesterday and stores were shopped down to bare shelves with only a light drizzle that occasionally froze. Even twenty years ago, this kind of prediction would not have been possible.

But there’s the rub, isn’t it. Nature is natural and science. God is not. We can prove nature; we can look at patterns and see a clear direction. But isn’t it also possible to look at the direction of the culture and see where it is heading? Twenty years ago, I was constantly teaching my classes to use gender-neutral language (I am not a “he”; therefore use humankind not mankind). Now I don’t even bring it up. Now it’s already part of their lexicon. Does that mean to those who are now in their pre-teens or younger, and that millenial generation that so amazes many of us, that “she” and “he” are relative terms that can also be used for God? Only time will tell.

But just imagine. If we were to stop fighting about what God is or isn’t, we might just stop fighting.


A Pill for Freedom

I remember my Grandma and Grandpa Sunderland’s Fiftieth Anniversary. The surviving seven children, from an original nine, and uncountable grandchildren came home for a huge celebration and a party in the church basement. A photo shows them standing proudly behind a 3-tiered wedding cake with a silver decoration proclaiming “50” in script. Both smiling. Happy. Grandpa is even wearing a suit and has set aside his beloved Stetson for the occasion. They both have white hair. They are old.

That’s what my mind sees whenever I hear “50th Anniversary” of anything. But lately, other memories crowd out my grandparents. Memories of me as a young woman (am I now old?), memories of my children (surely not that old!), memories that take me back to the 1960s: formative years for my thinking, my politics, my spiritual life, and my family life. The latest of these shocks to my memory came with the announcement of the 50th anniversary, coming in June of this year, of The Pill. 

By the time I was twenty, I had married, birthed two sons, and started on the pill. Granted, I married young, and my sons are close in age, but in the context of Kansas farm family, not radically young. I can still remember the struggle forcing those little pills out of the container and the fear when I forgot or lost one. By the time I was thirty, I’d moved to six states, raised kids, started college, involved myself in politics, anti-war, civil rights, and the feminist movement. The pill offered me a freedom impossible to my mother’s generation.

Margaret Sanger who first envisioned a contraception pill in 1912 was jailed many times for her beliefs. She teamed up with another early feminist, Katharine McCormick, wealthy enough to finance the dream. Together they found the scientists to study and develop the product.

The Roman Church went ballistic. Birth control pills (or condoms, for that matter) went against the “natural law” theory developed by Aristotle and Aquinas. The natural law theory says that sex is for procreation. Not intimacy. Not pleasure. Children. Today, the Church’s moral theology is still ruled by Thomas Aquinas, a theologian from the middle-ages when women were forced into metal contraptions with padlocks called Chastity Belts when their men went off to fight in the Crusades. In other words, if women are free, they threaten church stability.

And so we have hungry and dying children in developing countries tied to Rome, an out of control AIDS epidemic, and women enslaved by their bodies. Surely this can’t be what a merciful God might have envisioned.

We also, however, have women in the priesthood and ministry. Not in the Roman Church, certainly, but any woman in any ministry was scarcely imagined fifty years ago. However, women leaders in ministry were common in the early days of Christianity. They disappeared when control became vested in Rome.

The reforms to Christianity have happened very slowly and over many centuries. First there was the Protestant Reformation and now perhaps these 21st Century decades will someday be called the Feminist Reformation when that which is feminine and divine is once more raised to an equal footing.  

I suppose, in the end, that makes a Fiftieth Anniversary fairly small in scope. Next year, 2011, will be fifty years since I married my children’s father. And while chronologically I’m about the same age as my grandmother when she celebrated her fiftieth, I am much younger psychologically and spiritually, only now reaching for the peak of my work and thought. Freedom, while certainly not free, keeps me young.

The Good Mother

On Saturday before Mother’s Day, the front page of the Faith Section in the Kansas City Star ran the headline, “The Good Mother,” and went on to detail lives of three mothers from three different faith traditions: Mary in Christianity, Hannah in Judaism, and Khadejah in Islam.  In both Judaism and Islam, the women were wives, strong, resourceful, and independent. Only Christianity presents The Good Mother as obedient, virginal, and by extension, subservient. First I was angry, and then I became sad. What’s a good mother? How can any of us live up to that title?

We have the myth in Western society that to be a good mother means to sacrifice ourselves. And, of course, in the living we all fall short and become guilty that we’ve fallen short. There’s no “if” to falling short; it’s more a matter of “when.” And the when happens over and over. As does the guilt.

What we don’t think about is how the concept of Mary and her obedience is based on the life of Roman women two thousand years ago. Rome was patriarchy. The same patriarchy that rules the Roman Church today. Rarely are women told that Mary was considered the first disciple; even less rarely are we told that Mary lived her life and raised children as a single mom since it’s likely that Joseph died before her children reached adulthood. Her eldest, Jesus, would have been the father-figure in such a Jewish family.

Maybe that’s the reason he didn’t enter ministry until he was around thirty years old. That’s middle-aged in First Century life spans. Why did he wait so long? Is it possible that Jesus waited so long because he had to support the family as a carpenter after Joseph died?

Instead of a family woman, Mary is presented as a perpetual virgin, never having sexual relations, never complaining, never angry, never demanding. As always innocent; as always young and pure. And yet, evidence in the gospels says that Jesus had brothers at the least and probably sisters. Where did these brothers come from if not from Mary? And why did Mary and Jesus’ brothers confront him and ask him to come home? (Mark 3:31; Matthew 12:46; Luke 8:19)

Perhaps his response is akin to a modern woman saying to her grown children, “Okay, guys. You’re old enough to take care of yourselves now. I’m going back to school!”

The problem with perpetuating “the good mother” is that there’s no logic behind the myth. There is only a model that’s unrealistic and unattainable.  One could also say that it is a reconstruction, in Mary’s case, rather than an actuality.

Ray Brown, the preeminent Roman Catholic scholar of the Infancy Narratives says, in part: “…the opening of the Magnificat is a deliberate parallel to the opening of Hannah’s canticle after the birth of her child in Samuel 2: 1-2. The Hannah parallelism continues throughout the Magnificat, e.g., Luke 1:48, ‘Because He has regarded the low estate of His handmaid,’ echoes the prayer in 1 Samuel 1:11, ‘O Lord of Hosts, if you will look on the low estate of your handmaid.’ This handmaid motif was anticipated by Luke in 1:38 where ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord’ was part of Mary’s final response to Gabriel. The term employed is literally the feminine form of ‘slave’; and besides the religious context of servants of the Lord (see Acts 2:18), it may reflect the sociological situation of many early Christians…That Mary designates herself a handmaid is poetically beautiful in our hearing, but…whether or not the Magnificat came from an early Christian group of ‘Poor Ones’, [as Brown illustrates in his proceeding chapter] it clearly shares their mentality. Mary has become the spokeswoman of their ideals” (Brown, Christ in the Gospels of the Liturgical Year p. 92).

In other words, our “Good Mother” is modeled on slave mentality.

It serves no one for women to believe themselves less because they do not perfectly emulate a woman’s story created in myth.

None of which means that the concept of the Holy Mother isn’t important. It is. We all need a spiritual mother as well as a physical mother. We all need to believe that there is an understanding mother when we make mistakes and fail, when we stumble and fall. A mother that will hold us and comfort. In other words, a mother’s face on God. Interestingly, while God is called “perfect,” as a masculine face, he’s also permitted pettiness and anger and jealousy.

In a post-denominational world, could we see Mary as fallible, as jealous of the other disciples, as wanting Jesus to come home and not put himself in danger? If we could move to that understanding, would we then see “the good mother” as someone complete in herself, with all the human characteristics that we humans have? And wouldn’t that be liberating! Both to women and to their children and to their husbands.