The word "Christian" is an historical/cultural term that references those who take the Church as a source of authority in their lives. The Church is a fractured, fallible, historical, contextualized construct. Obedience to its authority and teachings is in no way the same as obedience to Christ. Therefore, it can also be said that those of us who reject the historical construct of the Christian Church are not necessarily rejecting the message of the one who was called Christ. Christ and Christianity are not synonymous.
On many occasions, I have heard others who share many of my beliefs make the statement that they are not willing to forfeit the name "Christian" to those who would use it falsely. To a point, I would agree with them. Christianity is diverse. Why let one group call the shots and set the terms for the rest of us?
So why have I decided to leave off calling myself a Christian? For two personal reasons. First, I don't believe that the teaching of Jesus was unique. I follow his teaching because it supports my conclusions as a rational human being dedicated to the principles of compassion, non-violence, equality, and community. Christian terminology, history, and mythology, no matter how liberally expressed, cannot fully describe my spiritual experience as an eco-feminist, a mother, or more generally as a woman. Second, I do not call myself Christian because to do so is to waste valuable time explaining to others why I bear a label that is so clearly linked to the history of the oppression of women and the denigration of the image and positve legacy of the Divine Feminine.
My argument with Christianity has never been with Jesus and his teachings as interpreted by the Gospel writers (although I am probably place a good deal more emphasis on them as flawed interpretations) but against the phallocentrism of the religion he inspired. Although he does not impress me as a God, he does impress me. He emerged out of both Hellenism and Judaism but stood strongly opposed to the inhumane qualities of each. As Lucretia Mott reminded us, "Christ was a bold nonconformist." His criticisms of religion as practiced in his day were unflinching. His was a religion written on the heart and emerging from direct relationship to the Divine and uncompromising Love for those beloved of God.
Unfortunately for all of us, his followers seemed to usually miss the point. Rome conquered Christianity and appropriated its symbols. The evils of the world with all its injustice, cruelties, and power games were incorporated into the emerging philosophy of the Church. For women, this meant that the dominant beliefs of women's inferiority were written into the theology. We were left with a Father God, a male hierarchy, and a dualistic philosophy that placed light, spirit, reason, good and men on one side of the dichotomy and darkness, carnality, chaos, evil and women on the other. Revulsion at women's bodies, traditions, spirituality, customs and very presence was woven throughout the fabric of Christian art, theory and practice.
As time passed, the Church did too. One would not expect the modern church to behave in the same way as the medieval church. Indeed, by the nineteenth-century, American Christians were increasingly vocal about the need to recognize human dignity and equality regardless of rank or station. Insofar as women are the beneficiaries of their men's status, this move toward justice lifted women. However, the belief in women's inferiority as inherent and divinely ordained was too persistent a component of orthodox Christian belief to offer women any genuine relief. In 1854, at a women's rights convention in Philadelphia, a man stood up against the idea of the right of women to assume equality with men. "Let woman first prove that she has a soul," he demanded. "Both the Bible and the Church deny it." (Matilda Joslyn Gage, Woman,Church,and State, 1893)
I'm certainly not saying that the Church in all its manifestations over 2000 years of history was universally patriarchal. In fact, I make it my business to learn about those Christians who despite the weight of history managed to follow the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. But I can't get away from the ugly reality that overwhelms their efforts. Christianity's history is grotesque in its phallocentrism. I'm not going to bother developing this argument further in this post. I think it very likely that we all could name at least a dozen books, articles, and recalled examples from our own lives to attest to this fact. So while I am not willing to say that Christianity has been universally bad news for women, I am saying that from the first generation of Christians to the current generation, "the woman question" has never been fully answered. Ecclesiastical and theological misogyny has not been accidental and it has not been without consequence.
"But then what of Paganism," one might ask, "Has that been woman-friendly?"
To that question, I'd have to ask, "To which Paganism do you refer?" If you are speaking of Bronze or Iron Age Paganism, the Paganism of the Sumerians and Babylonians, the Romans, the Greeks, the Germans and the Celts then I would have to agree that Paganism's history has been at least as violent, at least as misogynist as Christianity. There have been different emphases in the violence and hatred but I have no delusions that historical Paganism, in the general sense, is better for women than Christianity has been.
But I'm not bothered by that because I'm not a Roman Pagan or a Hellenistic Pagan or Sumerian, Babylonian or Egyptian Pagan. What they did or didn't do to women is irrelevant to my experiences. My Paganism is a Neo-Paganism, a new Paganism that emerges out of nineteenth century Transcendentalism, Progressive Quaker activism, Theosophy, post-colonialism, romanticism, environmentalism, the Civil Rights movement, Spiritualism and feminism to name but a few influences. The word Pagan is far more general than the word Christian and it makes even less sense to stereotype those who call themselves Pagans than it does to stereotype those who call themselves Christian.
To have Pagan infanticide and animal sacrifice tossed in my face as a Pagan is every bit as obnoxious as it is when someone tosses the Inquisition or witch burnings in the face of a liberal Christian Friend. When we are talking to each other, it is simply not enough, and it is simply unacceptable to use historical generalizations to characterize another person's spiritual source of authority. You actually have to look at the person's life and listen to the person's words. You have to let them define their Paganism, or their Christianity, or their Buddhism, nontheism, or Judaism. You have no right to do it for them. Here's why. To put words in another person's mouth and to define their beliefs for them is rude. It is also an inefficient and inaccurate approach to communication. This is particularly true of Friends who, whether Christian or as Pagan, are very likely to surprise the hell out of you with their ability to transcend the historical baggage of organized religion.
So that brings me to why I, a spiritual feminist inspired by the teachings of the human body and the matrix of Nature, find myself at home among liberal Friends. They are not, and have never been the kinds of Christians whose faith was based on a phallocentric interpretation of the biblical texts. Simply put, they don't hold the Christian beliefs I reject. By elevating a belief in Spirit's ability to directly connect to the human soul, they were no longer subject to the teachings of the ancient Church. As revivalists of the primitive Christian tradition, they placed themselves at the feet of Jesus rather than at those of his disciples, the church fathers, clergy, and theologians. They rejected the most injurious components of Christian religion with its obscene justifications for slavery, misogyny, corruption, war-mongering, power-lust, and hierarchy.
What they said was that we could bypass all that bullshit. Christ has come to teach the people himself. When they listened to Jesus, they heard a far simpler (although far more challenging) message. They heard that the only sure way to God was the way embodied by Jesus of Nazareth who taught a message of uncompromising love. Rather than fussing over complicated notions of belief, sin, and salvation, Quakers have let their lives speak. If their collective and individual behavior in the world is indication of the teaching of "Christ" in their lives, then I recognize them as brothers and sisters. Quakers make good Neo-Pagans. ;-)
If one looks at this introductory website to Quakers, one finds statements regarding general characteristics of commonly held Friends' beliefs. They believe that communication with the Divine is unmediated and that the way one chooses to live one's life is an outward manifestation of this inner connection. That's what spiritual feminist Neo-Pagans believe too. And that is why in the United States there have been strong connections between spiritual feminism and Quakers for over 150 years beginning with the 1848 Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls and lasting to this day.
So where does this blog entry leave me, apart from tired? Well, it leaves me with a great deal more work to do. The need for patient, careful, specific, thoughtful, and informed communication is absolutely necessary if Christian and non-Christian Friends are to move beyond coexistence to communion. It also means that there are elements of modern Friends' worship and belief that I must continue to confront as remnants and rebirths of Hellenistic, Pagan, and organized Christian phallocentrism. Associations with Amy Post and Lucretia Mott won't let someone off the hook if they go off in Aristotelian or Calvinist directions. So this is not one of those "Can't we all just get along" kinds of posts. It is an ornery post. But in the end this is the message:
I am a feminist. I am a Pagan. I am a follower of the teachings of Christ. I reject the historical Christian Church. I am devoted to the faith and practice of the Religious Society of Friends. I am not conflicted. Confused? Don't make assumptions. Ask me about it. I will extend the same courtesy to you.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
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