PATRIARCHAL LANGUAGE OF RELIGIOUS TEXTS

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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.

SPIRITUAL STORIES

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From time to time people are asked to describe their faith. When this is presented as an open question, rather than a set of mutually exclusive categories, the answer often comes in the form of a story. The teller relays their history, their trials and tribulations, their journey, usually ending with a commentary about where they are now and perhaps where they hope to go. It is not a simple explanation, but a very telling tale of spirituality, identity, and growth.

Ask someone their religious inclination and its likely to be a short and non-descript response. But ask about their spiritual beliefs and a story will emerge. Why? For one, it is harder to describe one’s personal spirituality without significant explanation. It also allows for things that don’t fall within the confines of organized religion as we know and understand it. Spirituality can be very personal, while religion is a regulated and public expression. Therefore, there are regulated and common ways to describe religion that do little to shed light on the personal experiences of the story teller.

Spiritual stories are not just to relay information to others, it is for the speaker as much as the listener. Every telling of one’s spiritual story is a chance to redefine, rekindle, and re-stake spiritual beliefs; as well as propel or redirect the spiritual journey. Some believe that the spoken word is very powerful. By granting it the energy of being spoken allowed, it is on its way to becoming manifest, a magic incantation for the ‘mundane’ world. Imagine the implications for the spiritual story. By telling it again and again we make it truer to ourselves and the world. The story gives a truth and narrative for the teller to live into. Every retelling is a chance to create or alter the teller’s reality.

What is your spiritual story? Are you the victim or the victor of your story? How does it drive you to live out your identity or press you to change? Think about your story now compared to 10 years ago. How has it evolved?

GET OUT GO BIG

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Even in this global world of ours, especially in this global world of ours, we can get caught up in the daily grind. We hear about events from around the world, and yet sometimes we can’t see past the end of our own noses. Between twitter, to-do lists, work demands, Facebook, family obligations, schedules and smart phones we often lose sight of the big picture.

When your feeling bogged down or tangled up in the web of contemporary living, its important to reconnect with the big picture. For some of the spiritually inclined, this might mean thinking on or studying the divine or otherworldly powers.  For others in might be getting in touch with raw reality and the earth in its purer forms by getting out in nature. Whatever it takes to get outside of yourself and get a taste of the big wide world out there, do it.

Meditate or pray. Take a leisurely walk and take a new route, go somewhere new, get lost. Get out in nature and find a view point where you can’t see one man-made thing. Spend time with animals, maybe some big animals to remind you of how small you are in the world. Look up at the stars. Research the cosmos. Try something new, try being vulnerable, try letting go of some control and roll with the punches.

Get out and get your mind out of the rat race you have created for yourself and experience the world as it is without your constructions. Such efforts will not only bring peace to you, but help you function with balance. With a bit of perspective, you can keep overreaction and irrationality at bay. With our eye on the big picture we will become even more effective at our daily tasks, all the while staying focused on what’s important.

LANGUAGE & MEANING

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If you wanted to know the meaning of a word, you would look it up in a dictionary. Now that often means looking it up online rather than in a physical book. But the dictionary remains to be a useful and simple tool. Look up a word alphabetically and find the definition(s) listed behind, along with other useful information such as its grammatical part of speech. It is a very simple and straight forward process.

But the simple, straight forward nature of dictionaries can be misleading in terms of meaning. Meaning is so much more than definition. There is history to be taken into account, along with connotations and context. Dictionary definitions do little to help this. Events and people give words new meaning. You often certain groups ‘hijacking’ words for their own purposes, associating them with different meanings. Many times, these are controversial groups giving words new meanings that a perceived to be negative by the general populous. But not always. Often these new meanings come about quite innocently. For example, people of various spiritual traditions often use the same vocabulary to speak about very different ideas. A southern Baptist and a New Ager may both talk about Jesus Christ, but they use that term with very different meanings. It is not done intentionally to spite another group, but nonetheless it can cause confusion and upset.

Can we continue to use ‘hijacked’ words, or those imbued with new meaning, according to their standard dictionary definitions? Or will they be tainted with their new meanings forever? If there is one thing this conundrum ensures it is that language is alive and meaning is not static. Instead it is perpetually changing. Together we shape language, and determine what meanings remain relevant and which become obsolete. Meaning changes but it isn’t fickle, it’s a powerful force that changes how we view and speak about our world. Let’s remember that as we choose how to address each other, what to publish, and what to listen to.

ORGANIZED RELIGION: JUST A BUNCH OF DRY BONES?

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The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

Organized religion in secular, Western countries has been on a decline that shows no signs of stopping. Most of those remaining are often struggling to survive. Spending most of their energy on survival, less energy is available for secondary matters such as those of spirit. But with logistics being attended to while spiritual activities go by the wayside, can these struggling organizations really be called ‘religious’? Is such a title shallow and arbitrary? Are our current religious establishments just dried up remnants of organizations with real spiritual value from days gone by? Are we just dry bones from bodies that were once alive and active with matters of the spirit?

In America, I feel organized religion is fighting death, fighting to be more than dry bones, even though it seems to become more of a threat every day. In the reading from Ezekiel, it takes two attempts to bring the bones back to life. One attempt brings the bones together and recreate the bodies that once were. But they are not alive. In my opinion, that is were organized religion is now. The ground work is laid, the organization and structure are there, but that spark of life is still largely absent. We need living word, will, and action to move the spirit and create organizations that live in this world rather than function as relics of fossilized traditions.

 

THE HELL OF MUTUAL EXCLUSIVITY

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The confessed spiritual seeker, the agnostic, the atheist, and those that claim to be ‘spiritual but not religious’ often site atrocities committed in the name of the divine under various religious organizations as proof that religion is cruel and violent at heart. Others claim that it is not religion itself, but rouge followers that make it a thing of violence. They site teachings of peace, kindness, and unconditional love as support. For me, the competing evidence proves organized religion can go both ways.

Religion is still being used as a weapon, often using mutual exclusivity as justification for the mistreatment of others. The notion of mutual exclusivity, the belief that only one religion is correct, is the fuel for people’s hate. Nothing good comes out of it. When only one religion, one sect, one denomination is correct and the rest are doomed to be condemned in the next life, there isn’t much hope for how people treat each other in this life.

Let’s use the Christian tradition as an example. As a Christian, say you were to encounter a non-believer, someone that you fully believed would go to hell. There are two possible scenarios:

1) You would treat them as a heathen sinner that needed to be saved. Being the good Christian you are, you would try to save them and in the process condemning their way of life due to your own unique view of the world. But this culturally specific view is instead interpreted as divine truth rather than something that is subjective.

2) You treat that person like the demon you believe them to be. You work to create their living hell.

Mutual exclusivity is defended as the one way to preserve religious tradition. For fear that without it, all religions would become one muddled spiritual puddle with no real substance. While I am confident that respect for different traditions and beliefs (pluralism) would not lead to the loss of the world religions, I must ask which is worse: A muddled system of spiritual beliefs from many sources? Or making life a living hell for those that don’t think the way we do? If a religion must be preserved by condemning others, is it worth preserving?

 

 

HELPING OTHERS & HELPING OURSELVES: CAN WE DO BOTH? – A LOOK AT MODERN CHRISTIANITY

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All of the world religions hold some inclination toward helping those less fortunate. Spiritual schools of thought and secular morality structures such as humanism also aim to better the lives of those who endure hardships. Christian teachings encourage followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and set prisoners free. This requires reaching out to people who probably have a different life than oneself and leading them to a life of faith and goodness. That sounds great in theory, but I know it is easier said than done, especially for many Christians today.

There is a fear in the Christian community that if one reaches out to those in the shadows to pull them into the light, that those in the light will instead be pulled into the shadows. So, is it good and wise for Christians to leave the safety of the flock to help the lowly in an act that might be trying to their faith? Or do they stay well within the boundaries of the Christian community to protect and grow their faith? In The Christian Atheist by Craig Groeschel, the pastor of what I would consider a modern ‘mega-church’, encourages Christians to pull others into the light. This could be through subtle means such as simply setting a good example through one’s words and actions, sharing one’s spiritual journey, inviting someone to church, or directly confronting sinful or misguided elements of someone’s life (210). And yet he not only warns of mingling with non-Christians, but tells followers to let go those in their lives that do not further their spiritual efforts, “If you’re surrounded by naysayers or other [dangers] to your progress, ditch them” (137). I heard similar sentiments while researching a Christian group at my alma matter. Followers were encouraged to cut out people that did not bring them into a closer relationship with God.

So how do both concepts exist side by side? Sinners aren’t likely to walk through the front door of a church. Some reaching out will be necessary. Are followers to stay with the flock while beliefs and spiritual disciplines are being established, only venturing out to help others once they have unwavering, rock-solid foundations? Can lay people, everyday believers improve the level of their own spirituality and that of those around them, and perhaps those that need it most? Can we help ourselves and others?

Can you speak from experience about a time where you or someone you know pulled another into the light? Can you think of the opposite scenario where you or someone you know was pulled into the shadows in an attempt to help? How do you perceive these two principles existing together? If not, which prevails?

 

Groeschel, Craig. The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but living as if he doesn’t exist. 2010. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.