Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Still Seeking a Genderless God

This post is longer than usual folks, but it's an important topic so I hope you'll bear with me.

I have written before of the alienation that I felt as a young girl growing up within a male-centric Protestant Christian religion. This religion, and the idea that our savior, "god," and pastors could only be men was somewhat traumatic to me and, without a doubt, led to my rejection of Christianity and subsequent atheist phase. Now, while I do not consider myself to be atheist, I find that I am unable to subscribe to any formal religion as I have yet to find one that is sufficiently untainted by human error.

One of the most glaring human errors of organized religion within the 3 major monotheistic varieties is the general male-centric adherence to the idea that there is one god and that that god is male. I know that nuances abound within the various branches of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but generally speaking, "god" and/or the savior/messiah being is gendered as male. With a few exceptions, women are marginal historical figures in the texts of these religions and, as such, men are viewed as the default believer, "created" in the image of god, and thus possessing the natural right to dominate women.

Religion has been and continues to be a profound cultural force that shapes the sex hierarchy. I was reminded of this when, recently, I came across an article entitled "God, Gender, and the Pastoral Office" in Touchstone, a conservative "Journal of Mere Christianity." Within this piece, a fellow by the name of S.M. Hutchens writes of convincing his daughters (and readers) that Very Big Differences exist between men and women, differences that necessitate keeping women out of positions of leadership in Christianity. As he (presumably "he") explains it:

"It must be understood, however, that the theology which excludes women from the pastorate is not shallow, desultory, or (necessarily) the product of mere conservatism."

Given that I tend to be of the opinion that religious texts are man-made, I think that many assumptions rest in the word "must" in Hutchens' sentence. It is not men, according to Hutchens, who exclude women because of sexism, shallowness, or whatever; it is something other than that, you must understand. And, neither is it merely Paul's proclamations on woman's place which exclude women. No. The exclusion of women from pastoral offices comes from "a massive and logically connected body of doctrine common to both the Jewish and Christian scriptures." That is, the pastoral office itself is explicitly, unashamedly, "defined within scripture and tradition as patriarchal." It is "god's" will. It is Just The Way Things Are. You "must" understand that. If you don't, if you question whether it was men or "god" who have excluded women from ordination, Christianity crumbles to the ground.

Through Christ, we "must" understand, "all things were made." That Christ, the "Beginning and End of all things," came as a male rather than female, according to Hutchens, "has timeless, cosmic significance:"

"It is because of the maleness of Jesus Christ that the Church has confirmed and advanced the doctrine ofmale [sic] priority found in the Old Testament. The Second Adam is like the first: the man is found in the woman because the woman was first found in the man....When one walks into a Christian sanctuary--itself a kind of womb--what should be seen and heard is pre-eminently the Man."

That, in a nutshell, is the standard argument against the ordination of women.

Many things are going on within that argument. First, notice the womb-envious conservative Christian male's co-option of the female birthing process. Even though every human being came from the body of a woman, through Christianity we "learn" that it was really the woman who first came from the man. The sanctuary, notice, Hutchens describes as "a kind of womb." Women have wombs, but in order for salvation, humans must be re-born through the "womb" of Christianity! That argument always reminds me of a bumper sticker I once saw that reads "I was born okay the first time." I think we should all be wondering why some formal religions try to convince us otherwise. Humans, they say, are really born through Christ, a man, and that is partly why women are to remain subordinate to men.

Later on, Hutchens bemoans the female pastor's "usurpation" of the male's role in the church. In light of the male's very obvious usurpation of the power of the womb, I cannot help but to chuckle, ironically of course.

Secondly, the main argument against the ordination of women is actually quite simplistic. Christ was a man. Therefore, the heads of churches should also be men. For, the headship of a church must reflect "the person of character of Christ himself." Personally, I find it unfortunate that such a primacy has been placed on the genitals of Jesus. But anyway, even though Hutchens informs us that it is an "error" for feminists to believe there is something "inglorious" or "inferior" about the religious "truth" that females should submit to men, an inglorious implication of inferiority certainly exists within his argument.

For, to hold that the maleness of Christ, through whom all people are born and saved, is an important enough aspect of his identity to demand female submission necessarily implies the superiority of all males. There is no logical way it could not. As a woman, it comes as no consolation for Hutchens to tell me that there is nothing "inglorious" or "inferior" about being a non-Christ-resembling woman whose natural station in life is to submit to a man. And really, it's not for him to say what is and is not inglorious about the so-called natural inferiority of every single woman on earth.

Third, even though I do not "believe in" Christianity, the acrobatics that some men go through to justify the subordination of women are interesting, if not somewhat amusing, to sit back and observe. Perhaps knowing that it's not quite okay to explicitly state that women are inferior to men, they coat that very idea with paradoxical euphemisms. "Humanity's dual gender is a reflection of the nature of God," Hutchens says, but within this concept of God is both "equality and hierarchy." God is equally male and female, but because of gender hierarchy, only the Father and Son part regularly manifest. Women and men, furthermore, are in an equal and hierarchical relationship. To digress for a moment, this acrobatic argument reminds me of the US Supreme Court's magical reasoning in Bradwell v. Illinois, the case that kept women out of the legal profession by concluding that women were citizens alright, they just weren't the type of citizens that had equal rights like how real (ie- male) citizens had equal rights.

I used to think I knew the meanings of words like "equality" (the state of being the the same as) and "hierarchy" (the state of being classified into different ranks) and that the two were mutually exclusive concepts not able to simultaneously exist within the same framework. Now, thanks to Hutchens and his explication that men and women have an equal hierarchical relationship to each other, I have learned that equality means that some people, male ones in particular, can be more equal than others. If you don't understand that oxymoronic concept, it is only because you do not understand the great myssssssstery that is Christianity!

To end, my purpose here has obviously not been to debate whether or not it is true that scripture and tradition mandate the exclusion of women from the pastoral office. As a non-believer, what the Bible or any other man-written religious text say is irrelevant to me. It holds no authority over me, or over many other people for that matter. My question is more meta, so to speak, than that. Feminist religious scholars have varying opinions as to whether it is "worth it" to remain in and reform androcentric and/or sexist religions and if so, how such reformation should occur. Personally, I question whether, if Christianity truly mandates formal inequality based upon the idea of a male higher power (in which the female identity is subsumed and subordinate), Christianity as an institution is indeed salvageable at all.

I'm leaning towards no.

The mythology of the Bible holds beautiful, useful moral parables, but to hold that "god" is male- in its incarnation of Father and/or Son- enables men to then postulate that "god" made only male humans in "his" own image. And, it turns a biological truth about conception on its head by enabling men to argue that it was women who came from men, and not the other way around. In short, from that one audacious idea that the most supreme great and powerful one and only "god" is male flows so much of so many religious males' self-righteous entitlement to gender supremacy. In a society that is dominated by a religion whose very texts and traditions mandate formal inequality, it is perhaps only the exceptional man- atheists, agnostics, liberal religious folk, and others who have found formal religion unappetizing- who lack that entitlement. Everyone else will you tell you that you are a "bad" or "ignorant" [insert religion] person for questioning that entitlement.

To end here, castigating those who have dared to ordain women, I also notice that Hutchens mocks the archbishop of Canterbury:

"Making himself equal to God, he was simply unable to take the more radical step of making women equal to men."

This scolding is interesting on two counts. For one, Hutchens calls making women equal to men "a more radical step" than a man making himself god! I think that speaks to the desperation that some men display clinging to their last vestiges of "inherent" male supremacy. Two, from an outsider's perspective, it has been religious men throughout history who have imbued their self-evident sexist "truths" about the nature of men and women with universality and, in the process, made themselves god. I cannot think of anything more radical (or arrogant) than that.

Ultimately, the "god" that Christianity offers me is a rather ordinary man sitting behind a curtain frightening people into believing that he is a real god. It is not god that I reject, but rather the religions built around "him" that depict god in this way. I do not find it any more appropriate to worship "him" than I would find it appropriate to worship the Wizard of Oz.

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