Thomas Merton

My quotations from Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain ("God in Her mercy" below) generated interesting responses. The writer of this first pleasing comment wishes to remain anonymous, but I will say it is a religious person.
Jeanette, I didn’t ‘catch on’ to the fact that it was Thomas Merton’s experience.  I suspected it might have been yours!!!!  I loved your sense of who ‘you’ were as woman, a much larger sense than most of us would allow ourselves to ‘take on’ as belonging to women! And I loved thinking…after discovering that this was a male experience. . .that such feminine qualities could also be masculine qualities!!!  Thanks.      
I agree with Steve’s analysis and response:
            God, of course, has no gender. The metaphor of a patriarch was used millennia ago and through tradition and inertia, it has stuck with us. There is nothing wrong with using the female pronouns, but it is a little jarring to read and hear until you get used to it. Steve Applegate
And I like Scott’s response:
I am somewhere between an agnostic and atheist ....... at most a pantheist ....... and if there be an Almighty among these billions of stars and infinite universe with black holes that created a big bang, it is obviously sexless so you may call your Almighty whatever you need to call it as human beings have done throughout their existence. Scott Thompson
I would guess this next anonymous comment expresses the response of many:
I had to read your blog several times, and yes when you switch genders it was confusing. When I changed it to the male gender I understood what was written. I guess we are truly creatures of habit. I'm sure I could get used to it the other way. Your position is that gender should not be one way or the other, right?
I have Merton's book. I might have to dig it out and read it again.
These four comments show how the prohibition against imagining feminine divinity has formed and limited our minds, even these four manifestly open minds. More so the comment by Phyllis that came through blogger (below). It illustrates the assumption that personal reflections about spiritual matters have no authority, indeed, could be “depraved” and “Godless,” because only religious teaching “correctly teaches God’s truth.”

The “revelation” argument also comes up in a comment I received last week on a long-ago post, Does God exist? Wrong question!  The writer refers to apophatic and cataphatic theology, two Christian ways of considering the nature of God. The first focuses on what is unknowable, the second on what is knowable from “revelation.”  Both traditions exhibit the same male-centered bias that infests all Christian writings. 

An Internet site states the basic premise of apophatic mysticism “is that, no matter how great the human mind, it simply cannot grasp God in all His fullness, all His glory, all His might.” One would expect the Unknowable to transcend one gender! Similarly, a site defining cataphatic theology describes God “according to what He has revealed of Himself in Scripture and nature”—exposing the same limited frame of mind. Apophatic, cataphatic, schmataphatic—it matters not if they reduce The Source of All That Is to one gender.

Sexist God-talk has closed the imagination so that "God in Her mercy" sounds "a little jarring" and "confusing." Worse, sexist God-talk endorses the supremacy of male power.
I inadvertently deleted the comment by Phyllis, but she was kind enough to send it again by email.
 Like Thomas Merton, we seek after God, but your changes in his piece, Jeannette, demotes Almighty God (as I see it), because there is no image to attach to the "she" and "her" to fill that spot, and because, from the beginning, nothing has changed in the "story" to why we are born and what will happen to us.  If the characters in God's life and death Salvation Plan shift, the meaning of life shifts. Dare we human alter anything about the God of Heaven who is in charge!   Isn’t this issue about obedience verses opinion?
    If the language is revised, then teachings become argumentative. Current lifestyle-trends are getting so Godless and depraved that we need to speak clearly of God's Truth. We ought ". . . not to fight over words.  It does no good, but only ruins the people who listen. Do your best to win full approval in Gods sight as a worker who is not ashamed of his/her work, one who correctly teaches the message of God's truth . .  have nothing to do with pointless philosophical discussions -- they can only lead further and further away from true religion."  (2 Timothy 2: 14 - 16).
     I was uncomfortable with the new meanings indicated within the re-write of Thomas Merton. We can only know God from His input, and anything we add, is beyond the "Truth" in the matter. . . as I see it.   
Phyllis Plum

God in Her Mercy,  February 12
Here is the story of a soul converted to Catholicism in the 1930s as,
the world faced not only destruction, but . . . defilement of that which is most perfect in woman, her reason and her will, her immortal soul.

God in Her mercy was permitting me to fly as far as I could from Her love but at the same time preparing to confront me, at the end of it all, and in the bottom of the abyss, when I thought I had gone farthest away from Her. . . . She would shed, into my soul, enough light to see how miserable I was. . . .     

The paradox is this: woman’s nature, by itself, can do little or nothing to settle her most important problems. . . . God gave woman a nature that was ordered to a supernatural life. She created woman with a soul that was made not to bring itself to perfection in its own order, but to be perfected by Her in an order infinitely beyond the reach of human powers. . . .     

By grace we are able to share in the infinitely self-less love of Her Who is such pure actuality that She needs nothing . . . Indeed, outside of Her there is nothing, and whatever exists exists by Her free gift of its being . . . everything that is depends upon Her gift, depends upon Her unselfishness.      

The soul of woman, left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal left in darkness. . . . the natural goodness of woman . . . becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it. What happens when a woman loses herself completely in the Divine Life within her?       

I was helpless without God . . . I wanted to do everything that people did to keep close to Her.

These are quotations from Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain. What’s wrong with this picture?  Obviously, I tampered with the text. After my last two posts, I don’t have to explain exactly how I tampered.
Let me know what was happening in your minds as you read these lines. Was it confusing? How soon did you catch on to my ploy? Did it offend you?
You readers can easily reconstruct the original lines. Just use typical he-man language dominating the time Merton was writing. He is easily forgiven, but there’s no excuse for it in the Church today.

I will keep looking for more ways to confound the sexist mind. And the mind not sexist but confounded by sexist God-talk forcing Christians daily to imagine Supreme Power male and women naturally inferior to men.

If God is male, then male is God.


Chris said…
Hi Jeanette,

Some clarification. "Cataphatic" simply refers to the expression of God in positive language. The question of revelation doesn't necessarily come into play. There is always a tension between the via positiva and the via negativa- this is the nature of polarities. This also reflects, of course, the tension between male and feminine conceptions of the Divine. It seems to me that masculinity and femininity complement one another in the same way that Divine absoluteness and Divine infinity complement one another.
Chris said…
Hi Jeanette,

Just some clarification. Cataphatic theology is not what is knowable from revelation (though it wouldn't preclude revelation, of course.) It is simply "the expressing of the Divine through positive terminology", that is, God "with attributes". Apophatic, or mystical theology, expresses the Divine in negative terminolgy, that is, what God is not (Nirguna Brahman from a Hindu point of view).

So, to claim that "Both traditions exhibit the same male-centered bias..." is false prima facie. Mystical theology is the via negativa, what God is not. This tradition is precisely the corrective to the kind of idolatry that you object to.

Another point that comes to mind. Respectfully, you may wish to research the very important distinctions between classical theism and theistic personalism. Orthodox Christianity never regarded God as a being among beings, but understood the Divine as being itself- "actus purus" in the jargon of the scholastics.

I think it is important to recall that classical theism is deeply informed by Platonism and the tradition of amnesis, which is much more akin to the kind of theology and metaphysics that you seem to be partial to.

Best Regards
Jeanette said…
I appreciate your comments and take them favorably. I agree with you that classical Christian theology available to academics does not regard God as a being among beings or exhibit the male-centered bias.
But I am writing for non-academics and responding to the institutional biases abundantly evident today. Ratzinger/Benedict knows well the facts you present. It does not inhibit him from waging a non-violent war against women.
Thank you for engaging. I invite you to contact me directly by finding "contact" on my main site.
Chris said…
Hi Jeanette,

Apologies for my repetitive comments. I wasn't sure if my first post went through. I, too, take your words favorably. However, as someone who has slowly migrated into the orbit of traditional Christianity, (from agnosticism and pantheism) your perspective both intrigues me and distresses me. Truth is, my views were very similar to yours for many years.

In the spirit of charity and dialogue, I think it is important to remember that Christianity is a bhaktic tradition- a path of love/grace. I will confess that I understand your aversion to Christianity's "monarchic" deployment (Watts does a nice job with this). But, the spiritual path of love and devotion requires the "otherness" of the object of one's love- the Divine Love.

Does this "structure" nullify the possibility of a gnosis or inner illumination? Absolutely not. In fact, it is central to Christian Divinization or theosis (unfortunately largely neglected in the western Churches). Consider the following from the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church:

The Word became flesh to make us partakers of the Divine nature. For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God. For the Son of God became man so that we might become God. The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in His divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.

From a bhaktic perspective, identity with the Divine simply would not make sense. "I want to taste sugar; I don't want to become sugar". It's a matter of spiritual economy. Ultimately, there can be no bhakti without jnani and no jnani without bhakti.

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