The patriarchal language in religious texts has been a point of discussion in recent years. Such conversation has dealt primarily with the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity & Islam), but it has become a topic in the Eastern world as well in relation to Buddhism and Hinduism. Two major questions seem to arise repeatedly in debate: Are these respective religions patriarchal at their core? Should we, and if so how do we, work to sift out the patriarchy and salvage the beauty in these traditions for all people?
Despite the poor track record of world religions in their treatment of women, many feminist thinkers hold out hope that religion is not patriarchal to its core. In the words of Denise Lardner, “…religious experience should transcend sex (72).” Which begs the question: Why are religious texts filled with patriarchal language? While such texts are often considered holy, we must not forget that they were recorded in a specific culture and time, and that they are bound to reflect the human tendencies of that culture and time.
In the present, where women have freedoms and rights their grandmothers could not imagine, there is a push to modernize religious texts to reflect our culture and time. But there is resistance that uses multiple strategies to justify the current language: the sentiment of tradition, insisting that (at least in the English language) masculine pronouns are considered universal, and that God’s gender doesn’t matter.
These justifications are telling of the current climate so let’s take a closer look. The first reason, tradition, is shallow and flimsy at best. Ask any man: If the shoe was on the other foot, would the sentiment of tradition be a good enough reason to continue using language that demotes and excludes half the human race in matters of the spirit? The answer is a resounding, “No.” Second the idea that masculine language is universal for all humankind enforces the ideal that male is the normative and preferred sex. All people are God’s people, preference for some over others is a human trait. And third (Something we can agree on!) God’s gender doesn’t matter. If the divine is infinite it embodies all genders. So why add in feminine language? Jann Aldredge Clanton answers that question beautifully, “The way to a God beyond male and female is through a God who includes male and female. The imagination can more easily leap from androgynous to transcendent concepts of God than from masculine to transcendent concepts of God” (82). In other words, adding feminine language is not the answer, but means to the necessary end: a divine source with no gender, a divine source that all people are equally worthy of.
How have you justified, weathered, or altered the patriarchal language embedded in your religious tradition? How do you think the topic is best addressed within that tradition?
Snow, Kimberly (Ed.) 1994. Keys to the Open Gate: A women’s spirituality sourcebook. Emeryville, CA: Conari Press.