A Life Worth Living (II of V)
Childhood Spirituality & Implications
Durkheim’s definition of religion was a huge relief to discover in my early college years; it was a clear explanation for vague and inchoate beliefs I’d held since childhood. At that time, of course, I was not consciously aware of the iconic, near-reified nature of the various flavors of christianity my family moved through — but I felt I could sense its implacably hostile nature to women in general, and me in particular.
In fact, my religious beliefs started out mostly as an offended reaction to Christianity: as a child, I felt how women were treated was emphatically not fair, and I could not get answers that made any sense to me as to why this was so! In attempting to analyze the cause of this perceived unfairness, I came to the conclusion there were two basic elements involved. One was the religious stories themselves — with their embarrassingly unsubtle, so-called explanations and validations of the inherent superiority of man over woman. I couldn’t believe a just, loving god would supposedly grant man rule over, but no emotional responsibility for, the helplessly attracted woman: “Your [Eve’s] desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).
The other elemental cause of unfairness I perceived was the consequent, frighteningly hierarchialized institution of marriage. I thought it nothing short of ridiculous that men promised to “love, honor, and cherish” their wives — whereas women ended up promising to “love, honor, and obey” (Episcopal Book of Common Prayer 427). The very phrase with which the weddings were closed appalled me: “I now declare you man and wife” (Episcopal Book of Common Prayer 428). What, had the woman somehow lost her humanity through this ritual?!
This personal decision led immediately to a whole slew of political, spiritual, and social implications. First the social aspect: if what offended me was the unfairness of men emotionally “conquering” women through the cultural paradigm men themselves had established, then was it any less unfair for the tables to be turned, and for men to be so conquered by women? I believed the answer was no — that fairness to all, so everyone had a chance to live a good life, should not depend on one’s interior biological plumbing.
If I believed that, however, in one mental stroke I’d wiped out hierarchy as a valid form of governance I could believe in. The essence of hierarchy is, after all, the assumption that there are those who are uniquely qualified to be ruled over, despite their personal thoughts on the matter. Further, this was a form of governance established as hoary convention through religion, echoed incessantly and repeatedly throughout the cultures and subcultures I observed all about me. I could see the trappings of hierarchy in the dangerous squabbling of international politics, threaded through the governments of individual nation states, validating corporate greed, even propping up abusive familial relationships. Did it really make sense for me to assume everyone else was wrong? Was perhaps hierarchy the better way to do things, and fairness simply an edenic chimera existing only in my head?
I found my personal answer, curiously enough, in the spiritual repercussions of my dismay with organized religion. Christianity (at least as far as a personal religious choice) took a huge metaphorical sock in the jaw due to it being the religion of my extended cultural lineage. If there was one thing I was clear on, it was that I didn’t want to be stuck in the same sort of situation I saw all around me: men treating women (even when being polite) as housekeepers, breeders, second class citizens… the Other. If that was what marriage stood for, I was clearly better off entirely without it. Further, if Christianity actually supported and endorsed this sort of behavior, I simply could not in good conscience countenance it.
I’d been told reading the Bible would be a life changing event for me, and in some ways I suppose they were right: the more I read, the less admiration I had for the individuals about whom I was learning. Even when I skipped ahead to the New Testament, I was deeply unimpressed by Paul’s apparent misogyny: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing” (Ephesians 5:22-25).
It surprised me not at all, by that point in life, to find there was another verse (usually left out of discussions on women) which mentioned how men should love their wives as well; I had already observed first hand the difference between adults’ stated goals and actual behavior. Once again, the verses didn’t seem to address fairness — just what you theoretically ought to do.
Still, though I could not respect Christianity as a whole, I could respect the courage and integrity of the religion’s inspiration. After all, if one seemingly insignificant human felt kindness and love were important enough to die for… how could I not have the courage to stand up for what I believed, too — even if I was still trying to figure it out for myself? And so, while still researching as best I could, I did my best to continue living the socio-philosophical implications of my rather fragmented beliefs at that time.
Initially I assumed I could just turn to either an earlier, “purer” form of Christianity to eliminate this unpleasant “male-dominant” thread from Christianity; later I tried other religions instead. Some fascinated research and exploration revealed to me the appalling extent of this supercilious patriarchalism, however.
First, it was clear there was no purer form of the religion — early Christianity seemed to be mostly characterized by a wonderful, wild-and-woolly freedom of thought as everyone apparently dashed off on their own search for gnosis. The Gnostics themselves, in fact, seemed to have some excellent beliefs on how superficial a structural priesthood is, when the true path to gnosis is both internal and extremely personal — but I couldn’t agree with their apparent loathing of both corporeality in general, and women in particular (Pagels 134) [although as an interesting aside, there is at least one beautiful paean in the Nag Hammadi Library titled “Perfect Thunder, Perfect Mind” in which the speaking “voice” is generally agreed to be both female and, most likely, the deity as well].
Regarding the Bible itself, the Old Testament was (to me) irretrievably paternalistic. Further, I was horrified to discover it took only one single generation for the New Testament authors to install that time period’s damaging hierarchical structure into the book itself. Due to the then-pseudonymous, inspirational nature of writing, Timothy swiftly managed to pass off his personal insecurities as the dogma of Paul — who himself never actually met Jesus! It is Timothy we actually have to thank for the horrible misogyny of the writings from the Epistles to the Ephesians, in fact.
It appeared that, in the end, the Gospels and Paul’s Letters were pretty much emasculated to be nothing more than a reflection of the societal norms — and god forbid any women attempt to speak up! Better by far, it seemed, for the biblical editors through the centuries to surreptitiously sweep Mary, Apostle to the Apostles, under the metaphorical rug of history, to be safely forgotten, and unquestioning of patriarchy’s inherent rightness.