Jesuit sociologist Walter Ong argues in Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness that God is male. As can be expected, he conflates his God-image—the male “Father”—with Transcendent Reality and unwittingly argues against himself.
We are distanced from God as from a father.Without intending to, Ong shows plainly that the deformed relationship of Christians with Transcendence stems from their male god—the sole image of divinity permitted to them—out there, over us, detached from us.
We have never been physically and physiologically attached to God. . . .
In this sense, God is male. He is not nature.
Nature is feminine, Mother Nature. Out of her we grow.
We do not grow out of God. . . . [God is always] other, different, separated as a father physically is . . .
From this grew the image of a stern and relentless judge-god and sin-centered theology. The demands of the exacting god prompted Teresa of Avila to,
thinking of how I have offended God, and of the many things I owe Him.It led her to frequent confession and worrying over confessors who committed "so great an evil" as to say that mortal sins were only venial sins. She called it a "pretext" or excuse when they told her that “pastimes and satisfactions" are allowed, sure that her "poorly educated" confessors put her salvation in jeopardy.
I hasten to add that I am not trying to destroy Teresa’s deserved reputation as a great mystic; I am exposing the deformed image of divinity in our tradition. Teresa’s scrupulosity grew naturally and abundantly out of the staple spiritual diet in Christian Europe.
The Little Flowers of St. Francis belongs to a genre called hagiography—Lives of the saints with limited historical value but revealing a spiritual attitude that still plagues us today. Writing a century after the death of Francis, the author attributes to Francis of Assisi this "wonderful" sermon given in a town terrified by purported wolf attacks:
. . . saying among other things that such calamities were permitted by God because of their sins, and how the consuming fire of hell by which the damned have to be devoured for all eternity is much more dangerous than the raging of a wolf . . .The gleeful relish in this writer’s description of punishment for sin occurs commonly in our tradition. Another sample comes from neo-scholastic theology:
how much more they should fear to be plunged into hell . . .
It is certainly fitting that God, as legislator and ruler, should not remit offenses without temporal punishment, so that in the future His laws might be better obeyed.The Big Boss in the sky tops a long line of bosses who exact greater submission from females than males. In another Flowers of St. Francis story, Clare, the saintly sister of Francis, is visited by the pope, who asks her to bless loaves of bread on the table. She replies in a painfully obsequious manner:
Most Holy Father, please excuse me, but I would deserve to be severely blamed if a vile little woman like myself should presume to give such a blessing in the presence of the Vicar of Christ.The Greek word hierarches means "one who presides at sacred rites," but a theological dictionary defines hierarchy as,
the body of men [sic] empowered to administer sacred things, a body organized in ranks and orders with a subordination of the lower to the higher ministries.Creatures stand on a ladder in greater or lesser proximity to the Boss "up there" and must go through "ranks and orders with a subordination of the lower to the higher." The Holy is not freely accessible to all but must travel down to lower creation in a well-defined pecking order: pope, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests, men, women, children, animals . . .
Always power flows from the top down, and morality consists in following rules and obeying superiors—obedience a touted virtue and pride the biggest sin.
Hierarchy presumes submission to authority above and domination of subservient others below—a can't-fail recipe for alienated relationships. In his play Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw gives Joan of Arc's main interrogator at the trial condemning her to be burned a telling speech:
What will the world be like when The Church's councils of learned, venerable pious men, are thrust into the kennel by every ignorant laborer or dairymaid whom the devil can puff up with the monstrous self-conceit of being directly inspired from heaven?Because Joan's interrogators cannot imagine Holy Guidance erupting from within, her replies remain incomprehensible to them.
LADVENU. Do you not believe that you are subject to the Church of God on earth?Christian hagiography reveals the effect of the power-over model on all relationships. When Francis commands one of his monks to twirl around like a fool, the monk is expected to obey him even "if he should order you to throw stones." Benedict finds one of his monks loitering during prayer time and strikes the offender with his staff.
JOAN. Yes. When have I ever denied it?
LADVENU. Good. That means, does it not, that you are subject to the our Lord the Pope, to the cardinals, the archbishops, and bishops . . .
JOAN. God must be served first. . . . My voices do not tell me to disobey the Church; but God must be served first.
CAUCHON. And you, and not the Church, are to be the judge?
JOAN. What other judgment can I judge by but my own?
In a more subtle manifestation of this mentality, Teresa of Avila writes that because Jesus "was subject to Joseph . . . Joseph could give the Child command." Caught in the hierarchical model, she struggles to sort out who had command over whom. Did Joseph because he was parent? Or did Jesus because he was God? The possibility of power arising from within or for shared, mutual, horizontal, reciprocal relationships does not occur to her.
Augustine's writings betray the same perception of a cosmos structured in super and sub-ordination, domination and submission, power flowing down and requiring absolute obedience:
It is You who make wives subject to their husbands . . . [in] faithful obedience; you set husbands over their wives; you join sons to their parents by a freely granted slavery, and set parents above their sons in pious domination . . .All relationships are vertical. You either dominate or are dominated. Authority, leadership, and order translate to command, control, and subjection. As late as 1982, J.A. Lyons writes,
You teach slaves to be loyal to their masters . . . [You] warn the peoples to be subservient to their kings. (quoted by Peter Brown)
Just as it is not possible to be a father without having a son, so too God cannot be almighty unless he has creatures over which to exercise his power.The top-down power model still pervades Church communication, not only in governing the institution but governing belief! Vatican officials and bishops give themselves authority to,
judge whether what is presented as the content of faith is accurate.Even theologians are forbidden to dissent publicly from official teaching. When polls first indicated a Catholic majority favoring the ordination of women, a bishop asserted that "the only appropriate discussion" about the question was "why the teaching of the church is correct." He assumed that, contrary to Vatican II’s declaration in Lumen Gentium, the Church is not the whole people of God but a few men in power.
At a 1994 synod on the role of religious orders, a Hungarian cardinal complained that the notion of obedience is being “corrupted by democratic sentiments."
Today the power game continues over Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God: Mapping the Frontiers of the Theology of God. Despite the author receiving numerous awards for her theological studies and the book being widely used as a theology text, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine censured it.
When the Catholic Theological Society of America objected to the bishops’ harsh critique, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, chair of the committee, answered that the role of a bishop is to be a judge of authentic theology and that Johnson should have sought an imprimatur (approval) from her bishop. I find this highly ironic because, in my view, Catholic bishops—indeed, all clergymen—could benefit from taking courses in theology from Elizabeth Johnson.
No doubt Johnson’s inclusion of the Divine Feminine poses a problem for the censuring bishops. Chapter Five of Quest for the Living God is titled: “God Acting Womanish.”
Tea Party & Medieval piety, August 30
(continuing “Goddess Mary” series) This response came to me:
I fear my mind cannot take all this in. . .Yes, it's hard to take in. (She was responding to "Patriarchal dominating god.")
Thank Goodness, we have come some distance from past “saintly” attitudes and perceptions because they clash with ours. A huge shift has ensued. The “Father-God” now resembles less the thunderbolt-hurling Zeus and more a loving, caring Mother. But domination/subordination still cripples all our relationships—male over female, clergy over lay, white over black, straight over gay, and so on.
How the POWER-OVER model demeans women is exposed with sickening clarity in the image of a female soul relating to a male god. In medieval piety men adopted a dependent, submissive, stereotypically-feminine attitude to gain approval from a male god. They spoke of their soul as "she" in obedience to "Him." She was to be dependent and submissive.
Prevent the soul being too confident of her strength and so yielding to presumption.The passive female soul was dominated by the active male god who boasted,
(Louis Bouyer, The History of Christian Spirituality)
Know that I am he who is and thou art she who is not.As late as 1981 Walter Ong wrote,
In relation to God . . . we are all, men and women alike, basically feminine.The female’s place is clear: she is inferior; she must never be the initiator; her proper attitude is yielding compliance. No wonder Teresa of Avila, a stronger woman than most, often apologized for being a woman. This model laid the spiritual foundation for the scourge of pornography.
It is also hard on males who lack the will to dominate. Rapists in prisons force a weaker male partner to be "the girl." Passive boys are beat up in fights. Both women and men are hurt when divine initiative and activity are seen as masculine, human dependence and passivity as feminine.
The POWER-OVER model underlies all, and churches continue to pound it in with their relentless HeHimHis Lord talk. It took feminist theologians, who stopped seeing everything as either higher or lower, to spot what lies at the bottom of the other inequities. This was written by Sandra Schneiders:
Rosemary Ruether has pointed out that patriarchy is the basic principle underlying not only the subordination of women to men, but of one race to another, of colonies to master nations, of children to adults, of nations to divine right monarchs, of believers to clergy. In other words, patriarchy is the nerve of racism, ageism, classism, colonialism, and clericalism as well as of sexism.The male-over-female pattern supports and perpetuates all vertical, alienating relationships. Power unchecked becomes power corrupted. Given this pattern, clergy sex abuse—its biggest shocker the cover-up by bishops—seems inevitable.
The submissive female role also is forced on supposedly inferior parts of ourselves—feelings, for instance. Augustine expected men
to love the sexuality of their wives and the physical bonds of their families only as a Christian must love his enemies.A brother in The Little Flowers (see previous post on hagiography) shocked his confreres when it seemed
(biographer Peter Brown)
he was grieving for his brother out of a natural and worldly affection.They were relieved when he assured them he was not giving in to natural feelings.
The POWER-OVER model leaves Nature no inherent rights. Animals, forests, lakes and streams can be used, manipulated, and destroyed at will. Here is a writer still preaching domination over ourselves and over nature:
Christ is still living and cooperating with us in the restoration of dominion first over ourselves and then over the non-human cosmos—a truth forgotten by many theologians and spiritual writers today. (George Maloney, 1982)He complains that ideas are changing, wishing that "dominion" would proceed unchecked.
The male god who demands exclusive worship forms the root and base of every power inequity, the religious justification for deformed relationships in our social fabric.
You think this is an overstatement? I point you to the example of fundamentalism with its extreme deformity, “Dominionism,” Evangelicals In Spiritual Warfare, a right-wing movement of Christians warring against views different from their own. They believe they must gain dominion over all aspects of society—religion, business, government, family, media, arts and entertainment. They're doing "the Lord's" work, converting Jews, GLBTs, Muslims, etc. to Jesus.
All beliefs “wrong” or out of alignment with their view are the work of demons, as you can hear in Fresh Air by Terry Gross.The rule of Jesus, they believe, will conquer all, make everything right, and they have the job of bringing on that rule. Politically they're aligned with the Tea Party.
Restoring the feminine to our idea of the Holy—getting rid of HeHimHis Lord talk would restore dignity to the less-powerful of every kind. It is all of a piece.
I add caveats. I am not condemning all clergymen and churchgoers but consider us all more or less prisoners of a mental pattern that, I gratefully observe, shifts under the radar while Dominionism grabs headlines. In my own prayer life, I surrender to my inner Guide, trusting Its wisdom as superior to my own. By outlining the deformed framework I hope to raise awareness of it and help to free us all from its shackles.
Sin-talk, September 6
I outlined the male god’s dominating power in my post “Patriarchal, dominating god,” which sets the stage for Judeo-Christian sin-talk and its effect on all Western relationships.
In the Christian myth, a father god rules as a Big Boss topping a long line of bosses who judge us for our sins. He’s out there, over and against us, inspiring more fearful obedience than trusting love. Creatures are distinguished from each other by their relative proximity to God—you know, the pope much, much, much holier than a lay woman. The son-god adds guilt by being crucified for our sins. Guilt, worthlessness, and powerlessness infuse the faithful.
The institutional church strengthens these feelings with its line of hierarchs over worthless sinners who lack the authority to decide what’s right or wrong. Power in this paradigm flows through channels that defy sense, commanding experience-wizened women to address a naïve young man as "Father" and ask forgiveness for sins. Likewise educated, worldly-wise men and women. Small wonder that few Catholics go to confession anymore.
Power always comes from above, and morality is all about following rules and obeying superiors, adding shame to feelings of guilt, powerlessness, and worthlessness, especially for those low on the scale of authority, with more people to look up to than down on.
Yes, of course I’m exaggerating, but not by much when we consider the paradigm that, fortunately, is now past. For a taste of it, scroll down to bits of Christian literature in previous posts, and here’s another tidbit. The following theology was written as late as 1982:
Just as it is not possible to be a father without having a son, so too God cannot be almighty unless he has creatures over which to exercise his power.It takes a while for the insanity of this to sink in.
(J.A. Lyons, The Cosmic Christ in Origen and Teilhard de Chardin)
Richard Sipe in Sex, Priests, and Power critiques the role of celibacy in deforming Church authority,
The male virgin—the celibate—is one not defiled by woman (his emphasis).Sipe quotes St. John Chrysostom complaining in about 386,
As the celibate system took shape, power had to be limited by one factor: sex. Women cannot have power. . . . [Many] accept this bias as natural and sanctioned by grace.
Divine law has excluded women from the ministry . . . Yet I have heard someone say that women now assume such liberties as to rebuke the bishops of the Church.Sin-centered spirituality shames and subjugates men also, especially men who lack positions of power. They do have power in their families and the result is domestic abuse.
What else is a woman but a foe to friendship . . . a necessary evil, a natural temptation . . . painted with fair colours.
Unworthiness contaminates us all. In this sin-centered atmosphere, every prayer brings the realization of how awful we are. This subject makes me feel dirty. I’ve developed such dislike of the word “sin”—the very meaning of which has been twisted by this power paradigm—that I cringe a little when it’s mentioned in prayers, for instance the “Lord-have-mercy” part of the Mass.
To heal from the paradigm of POWER OVER, we can focus on feminine divinity empowering us from WITHIN.
Goddess confounds male dominance, September 13
From an exchange with a traditional Catholic:
We have God's Truth. . . . Truth is given to us.Others also have God's Truth. Truth reveals itself in an infinite variety of ways.
Myth and Truth don't mix. . . . god/goddesses are a myth with no divinity. You can demote God to myth-level but that doesn't mean you have the power to control Almighty God Power greater than yourself.Correct. We cannot control how Source reveals itself; we can't control Its infinite variety of expressions—Its myths—coming through human imagination. We don’t know why male deities supplanted female deities. We can guess but don’t know the reasons for the patriarchal system described in previous posts.
But at this point in the evolution of human consciousness, many are becoming aware that what we call God vastly transcends all possible myths and God-images—goddess, god, turtle, eagle, wind, earthquake, whatever.
Goddess is not better than God; God is not better than Goddess. Both express truth; each is a possible way to imagine the Source of All. To understand this is to understand myth and symbol. And to understand the distinction between Jesus the Man vs. Jesus the Myth.
Being human, we prefer certain images for relating to spiritual reality, probably those we're used to. Nothing wrong with that, as long as we don't demand that others do as we do.
God the Father, the guy in the sky who holds us accountable, now is joined by a softer God the Mother to temper the wrathful judge described in “Sin-talk.” We imagine Mother Goddess giving us life from her Womb; we imagine her Earth enveloping us at death to be transformed into new life. SHE is not as separate, as disconnected, as "other" as the He that Walter Ong describes (in “Patriarchal dominating god”). We visualize Holy Mother erupting from below or appearing from within, giving us a break from the oppressive power above.
Stereotypically, Father enforces rules while Mother nourishes and empowers each child, no matter how weak. He stands for POWER OVER and She stands for POWER WITHIN. He stands for POWER AGAINST and She stands for POWER TO as in the power to act capably or generously. Thus, each individual can work on performing with strength and without adversarial relations. This challenges us more than obeying superiors above us and provides an alternative to hierarchical power under Father God. Instead of always being accountable to someone else, someone outside of ourselves, we listen to the voice of conscience within.
The paradox of She and He together can lead us to appreciate Transcendence by confounding our understanding. We need Mother Goddess and Father God plus all the other conceptions provided by religions and science. We need the mix.
If the divine SOURCE had been imagined exclusively female for several millennia and males had been carefully excluded as either divine images or human authority figures, we’d also see distortions. It’s the exclusiveness of male power that produces the problem.