“ Thoroughly orthodox, grounded in classical Christian thought, liberatingly contemporary, and rooted in Women’s experience.”
I remember how when I clicked on the title link to Barnes & Noble, I immediately encountered the suggestion that I might also like to read the following writings listed among books “closely related“:
THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS, by Elaine Pagels (read it – liked it);
WHY CHRISTIANITY MUST CHANGE OR DIE, by Bishop John Shelby Spong (I read it but only partially agreed with it);
SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY, by Paul Tillich (still not yet read but I’m interested because both Johnson and Spong quoted Tillich);
GOD AND THE RHETORIC OF SEXUALITY, by Phyllis. Trible.
These writings all, to a certain degree, crash against the wall when it comes to widespread acceptance by our most public and accepted authorities of Catholic and Protestant orthodoxy.
Perhaps the reason for less-than-enthusiastic acceptance and support of this sort of thoughtful writing is because the writing is exactly that – thoughtful. It is also made possibly harder for those of the literalist or fundamentalist Christian mindset to read because it is what it is: intellectual and academically complete with cites, quotes, notes and bibliographies galore. Which causes me to wonder what there is about thoughtful writing on Christian history and practice that leads to discomfort – particularly those of influence who seem to be the spokespersons for what is claimed to be the majority view?
One suggestion easily noticed is that the majority of the spokespersons are male and serve in callings based on authority founded in a literal interpretation of scripture. Johnson’s writing speaks directly to this reality as the prime hindrance to a more useful and fulfilling practice of Christianity as a way of life.
Despite her writing being “ thoroughly orthodox and grounded in classical Christian thought”, the resistance to what Johnson wrote is part and parcel of more than two millennia of a blind and unreasonable acceptance of an imagined patriarchal order in Christianity.
Patriarchy is essentially only valid when religious thinking is overly influenced by the particularly rigid and dogmatic framework within one’s own literal-minded religious perspective ( I think, for example, about what the LDS teach as a “patriarchal order.”)
One enemy of dogmatism is critical thinking, one of those rash habits that causes unease when allowed to proliferate without censor because it appears to lead to the sort of exploding grenade reflected by Bishop Spong’s writings, or the idea of women, such as Kate Kelly and her Mormon sisters agitating for ordination.
More than 2000 years of Christian doctrine and philosophy has evolved from that which more and more appears to have been nothing more than Roman editing of what became the Bible; a manipulation of facts, words and deeds – all intended to create secular and religious security for those who would govern. The source then of contemporary Christian beliefs and attitudes very much appears to have been a polluted well from which polluted water has been distilled into a modern polluted form.
One prime candidate looming more prolifically with each passing year is the increasingly discredited notion of a religious male patriarchy based on a patriarchal God … a Divinity who is now losing credibility. It seems now that only an appeal to scripture, with a firmly planted traditional literal acceptance, is the last remaining justification for a sexist definition of the Christian God.
Belief in a so-called inerrant Bible might very well be the last bastion of defense of religious patriarchy.
More than ten years ago Elizabeth Johnson was asking if the Christian God is really patriarchal or even absolutely male? One might ask if feminist theologians are really campaigning for a Mother in Heaven or a Female God.
If it is asserted that feminist religious writers are locked into an obsession, let it also be stated that patriarchal supporters are likewise locked into their equally dangerous obsession.
How often are we exhorted to accept or believe something with the tuneful answer “How do I know? The Bible tells me so.”
Come on guys! Where is She?
In this regard I enjoyed one small example offered by Ms. Johnson who writes of New Testament verses from the book of Mark, chapter 14, concerning Jesus being anointed by a woman bearing an alabaster jar of ointment. Responding to objections and criticisms made by some who were there, Jesus rebuked them and said:
“In truth I tell you, wherever throughout all the world the gospel is proclaimed, what she has done will be told as well, in remembrance of her.” (New Jerusalem Bible version).
Now to every literal-thinking, inerrant-Bible-accepting, all-or-nothing Christian evangelist it can be asked, “Who was this woman?
What was her name?”
Why does literalistic preaching of the Good News not include a Jesus-commanded remembrance of her?”
What is this historical deafening silence around remembrance of the woman with the alabaster jar?
All that literalist thinking and scriptural posturing allows no ability to have it both ways. Either it is ALL literally true and to be believed and followed, or the literal-minded must get out of the orthodox wagon.
Guys, it’s the internal story most of us were taught to carry around that is flawed. What is within us in terms of how we define the world and its realities – spiritual, material, intellectual, sexual – all the inner thoughts that determine our outward performance come from a source that was never designed to be perfect.
“The secret thoughts of a man run over all things, holy, profane, clean, obscene, grave and light, without shame or blame.” – Thomas Hobbes
Our secret thoughts are the authors of our own story, our personal mythology from which we navigate our lives.
“I asked myself, ‘What is the myth you are living?’, and found that I did not know. So … I took it upon myself to get to know ‘my’ myth, and I regarded this as the task of tasks … I simply had to know what unconscious or preconscious myth was forming me.” -C.G. Jung, The Portable Jung
The Christian theory of a Godhead is usually portrayed in some context of a trinity, whether three-in-one or made up of three important facets, usually the Father, the Son and The Holy Ghost. Godhead itself is an excellent place from which Christians ought to start in constructing a more useable and more completely spiritual understanding of our ultimate higher power.
In this regard, it is no surprise that many believing Christians easily accept the proposition that the Holy Spirit is absolutely feminine, regardless of what is in the Nicene Creed or what pronoun their Protestant preachers use from the pulpit.
In a fundamentalist sense, life must be a microcosm of the macro-assumption that God is a monarch, if the monarch rules by edict and an extortion factor both loving and harsh. The patriarchal god is proposed as simultaneously merciful and judgmental. God’s kingdom is a kingdom of enforceable order. So long as we view our world as something strictly ruled by God it will never be a world managed or loved by God in the purest sense of love and parenting.
For me, life as a microcosm of the world managed by God is more reflected in the nature of family. In truth, I came to the understanding I have of God more by fathering and parenting five children than anything ever encountered in a context of religious training, doctrine, sermonizing or patterning. I learned very painfully what it is to be God-like to very young children – then watch that God-like status wan as they grew older and more independent.
As the father of questioning and experimenting children moving into their teens, I realized how very little I could “rule” over those precious children, “command” their obedience and effectively “punish” their rebellions. On the contrary, my promptings led me to conclude that my function would be best as that of a benevolent supporter; an encourager and rescuer (whenever rescue was both needed and wise).
Elizabeth Johnson makes the following statement repeatedly in her book, SHE WHO IS :
“The name of God functions.”
How true that statement is! The imagery that comes with any name we hear is something to be pondered. If we see an older man in a white robe and white beard when the name “God” is mentioned, we have been given something incomplete in forming our inner self-story. It is even possible that our incomplete inner self-story was taught us by a mother who herself was subject to the distilled patriarchal version from the original polluted well.
But even in that regard and speaking stereo-typically, our parenting was usually a microcosm of the macro-cosmic reality of Godhead. As men are taught to be men and women to be women according to their natural “nature and role”, children will ask their father what to do and expect to be “commanded” by the “patriarch” exactly what to do.
However, often children will ask their mother what to do with the anticipation of being told both what to do and why.
Those fathers who to some degree think outside the patriarchal stereotype will practice the sensitive and caring parenting that more fully reflects God/Goddess as a caring parent.
Is it any wonder that the Holy Spirit, which is supposed to be the prompter, the confirmer and the enlightener – the Paraclete promised by Jesus – would be feminine?
So long as we remain unable to view the object of our worship as the very essence of both masculinity and femininity we will remain part of a diminishing Christian influence in all aspects of modern life.