Holy Misogyny

October 25, 2012
I’m reading a book titled, Holy Misogyny: Why the Sex and Gender Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter, by April DeConick.  Its revelations on vilification of the female in the first centuries of Christianity would repel even most conservatives today. I had encountered much of this material before but had forgotten the details—who said or did what outrageous thing. The ugly story presents a backdrop to contemporary events and helps to explain the glacial pace of change today in the treatment of women and girls.

In these excerpts “Church Fathers” reveal prejudices so contorted as to call into question their soundness of mind.
[Jerome, translator of the Bible into Latin,] spells out all the details of fostering a virgin whose body would become the temple of God. The girl child must be kept in total seclusion . . . She should be taught such shame of her female body that after puberty she should never bathe again, being humiliated by the mere thought of seeing herself naked. She should learn to mortify her body, to subjugate it and live in deliberate squalor to spoil her natural sexiness.
Epiphanius claims that women are
“unstable, prone to error, and mean spirited.” Death entered the world through a woman’s action. As a consequence, she cannot be trusted or obeyed.
Tertullian earns his reputation as supreme woman-hater with these lines:
Do you not know that you are an Eve? . . . You are the Devil’s gateway. You are the unsealer of that forbidden tree. You are the first deserter of the divine Law. You are she who persuaded him whom the Devil was not valiant enough to attack. . . . On account of your desert, that is death, even the Son of God had to die.
Jerome opposed marriage and held up virginity as the only acceptable Christian lifestyle. Augustine finishes this picture of extreme asceticism verging on emotional disorder.
According to Augustine, the “hideous” unwilled erection of his penis was the consequence of sin and woman was its source.
Augustine considered all carnal desire to be sinful. He was the first to teach the fiction that woman’s body, when accepting semen in the sex act, becomes like soil to seed sown by her husband. He also was the first to argue that a woman has no authority over her own body, her husband does.

In the fourth century, even those who argued against Jerome’s denigration of marriage and Augustine’s conflation of sex with sin agreed that woman was inferior to man, subordinate to man, and must be submissive to man. So complete was fourth century contempt for the female that women could earn respect only by becoming men. This belief found its way into Saying 114 in the Gospel of Thomas, which has Jesus saying of Mary Magdalene,
I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Some women went into the desert to starve themselves until they lost their breasts and stopped menstruating.

It is tempting—I have done it—to dismiss opinions of the woman-hating “Church Fathers” as so grotesque they can’t possible influence any one today. But their weird misogyny peeks out from the statements of Catholic bishops who fight against equality for women in the Church today. When bishops came out against the Affordable Care Act and nuns dared to dissent from that opinion, the bishops were aghast that sisters would publicly disagree with them. Their words reflected this deep reservoir of misogyny in our tradition—the conviction that a female can have no authority.

The hierarchy’s arguments against women’s ordination obviously hearken back to the same early-centuries misogyny, echoing the patristic belief that woman’s body is shameful by claiming that her body does not constitute the correct sacramental “matter” for ordination. Catholic women do not stand alone in enduring abuse. In 1995 the Southern Baptist Convention revoked women’s ordination and excluded them from all pastoral ministry that involved leadership.

In the secular realm the fight for women’s equality is progressing a bit faster, but apparently our religious tradition also puts a brake on progress there. Reverberations of its sex and gender distortions pop out in the clumsy campaign rhetoric of conservatives. That such statements have caused huge controversies and fodder for comedians seems to me a healthy sign. It suggests we are moving out of the diseased view presented so graphically in books like Holy Misogyny.  

Holy Misogyny 2, November 2
I’m sorry that comments I “publish” are not really published by blogger. It has happened several times and is annoying. Usually, however, I get a flurry of email responses that do not go through blogger. As a result of one exchange, I add this to the previous post.

The misshapen views of  “Church Fathers” on women cannot be separated from their theology, which reflects their opinions on gender. Imagining God to be entirely male with no vestige of the feminine fits their twisted view perfectly.

We are trained to respect the "Fathers," but knowing what we know today, we should critically examine their words. Because of their contempt for half of humanity and creation, we will find distortions in their thoughts about God and human relationships—the heart of spirituality.
They were not the first to believe in and teach patriarchy. Scholars debate its origins, but we know that it did not exist in prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies. By the time of classical Greece, the intellectual origins of the West, patriarchy was firmly embedded. Plato, Aristotle, and other classical greats had the unshakeable conviction that women were inferior to men, and it imbues their writings. Aristotle, for instance, said that a female is an incomplete male, “as it were, a deformity.”

Our Judeo-Christian tradition was imbued with the same, as is abundantly evident in the Bible, where “the Lord” jealously competes with other idols for exclusive worship by “his people.” Raphael Patai, historian of ancient Hebrew culture, wrote in The Hebrew Goddess,
Every Hebrew-speaking individual from early childhood was imbued with the idea that God was a masculine deity. No subsequent teaching about the aphysical, incomprehensible, or transcendental nature of the deity, could eradicate this early mental image of the masculine God.
When I was studying at the School of Theology in the 1980s, I found a delightfully eloquent refutation of the patriarchal view coming from a people close to the earth. Rodney Venberg, a Bible translator for a people of Southwestern Chad in Africa, wrote that their word for God (Ifray) was related to their word for mother, This made his job of translating the Bible difficult and produced a weird kind of speech among Christians that confused their neighbors. Converts wanted to know if it was necessary to change their talk to become a Christian. Venberg wrote,
To speak of God (Ifray) with such terms as "he" and "Father" was totally inconsistent with their grammar and went against their whole notion of the creation (after all had a man ever given birth to a child?).
Fortunately, we are today moving out of the male-dominated era as part of a huge shift in human consciousness. Because the female is associated more closely with nature and less with dominance, I expect a non-patriarchal world will do a better job of addressing political, economic, ecological, and nuclear threats to the planet and all its inhabitants.
Comment:  Kathleen said:
Comedians observe behavior they perceive as discrimininatory or biased and then communicate it to their audiences in a humorous way. A current example is how Stephen Colbert is offering a humorous million dollar challenge to Donald Trump with the same deadline of October 31 that Mr. Trump is giving President Obama to provide information to Mr. Trump. Mr. Colbert implies that his request is just as outrageous (and silly) as Mr. Trump's.

If only we could joke about women's issues, but, unfortunately, as long as we have mostly male legislators who feel they can decide what's best for women's bodies and their healthcare, it's a man's world. We can call it the United States, but it's still ruled by and for men.

The imaginary lord god, October 3, 2012
On October 13 and 14 I will be at the Women & Spirituality Conference in Mankato, MN to give a presentation and attend other presentations. My topic is Sexist God-talk.
God as exclusively "HeHimHis" describes male power as natural, normal, proper, and right, and female power as unnatural, abnormal, improper, and wrong. In this way, the Christian “Lord” promotes male domination and therefore gender abuse. In fact, it promotes all types of inequality by establishing hierarchy and domination as the essential, even sacred, structure of the universe.
Those of us still in the Christian tradition can help to transform sexist God-talk with its immoral power structure by taking every opportunity to insert inclusive God-talk into liturgical and everyday language. This workshop will suggest many ways to diminish the power of “the Lord” by naming the Holy with feminine and non-hierarchical terms.
This is timely after we watched Half the Sky and maybe cried a little to see how little girls are sold into slavery and getting their genitals cut in the practice of female genital mutilation, called less graphically “female circumcision.” They need us to pay attention to this cruel practice.

The reason for cutting little girls’ genitals? To make sure they will not get pleasure from sex, the better to control their bodies. I’m not making this up. A practitioner said as much in her own language.

The reason she had no intention of stopping it?  She’s making good money at it—it’s what she said. Every day she cuts about 30 girls around eight years of age, without anesthesia or sterilization. Without warning the girls are suddenly grabbed by their mothers or grandmothers and taken to the hut of the practitioner. Their legs are tied to prevent kicking, and their screams are ignored.
Don’t imagine that this is like male circumcision. The clitoris is removed, not only cut. In 15% of the cases, the genitals are cut off entirely. All that’s left is a hole to let urine and menstrual blood flow through.

So what’s the connection between girls used as sex objects and sexist God-talk?
Religious God-talk trains people to worship an idol, an imaginary lord god who endorses male domination. It teaches everybody, not only religious people, that females have no status. Real transformation can come only if we allow women to become confident and powerful.  This requires cleaning our religious language of God-talk that reduces the Source of All That Is to a lord or lords, definitely male and definitely lording it over others, especially women and girls because female terms for God are forbidden.

It’s not hard to clean up the sexist stuff. Just cut out the “HeHimHis” and “Lord,” and add  Mother” in equal portions to “Father.”  There are many enlightening terms for God that would gently and persuasively teach people about the ineffable Transcendent One.

I understand the impediments to change. But refusing to make any effort to reduce sexism in God-talk, out of habit or because of church authority, I find unconscionable.


Laura said…
It happens in almost every religion. Religion is about power and control in most cases. Spirituality is not. Male dominated religion allows men to behave like animals.
Kathleen said…
We need to refer to more female images and language for God. We need to elect more women in positions of power so that, hopefully, we have no more testosterone induced wars.
Karen Tate said…
This reminds me of why I do what I do everyday - reminding people there is a Mother God and she is nothing like this dominator, authoritarian god of the bible that has given so many the right to use, abuse, exploit, kill and dehumanize.

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