Religion & Culture | God is a woman, God is a man - The unwise mix of religion and identity politics
With assuredness and poise during live performances, when it matters most, Ariana Grande clearly emerges as the compelling female vocalist of today.
Her performance of No Tears left to Cry at the Live Lounge could sway any naysayer.
One of her songs, in particular, piqued my interest, if only for its title, God is a Woman, a title that prima facie presented God in anthropomorphic terms.
It appeared that Grande, too, had headed down this worn, unwise path. But I was proved wrong. God is a Woman, a highly interpretative song, is anything but a turn-the-table jab at patriarchy, or a rhetorical cry to right gender inequality.
No doubt, the role of women, vis-‡-vis the Bible and divinity, is a healthy discussion that needs to be advanced. But any discussion or promotion of a 'gendered' God is a different matter that should not be entertained. This particular concern will be taken up later.
That the centrality of women in the great religions of the world has been deliberately supplanted by patriarchy, as part of society's lager suppression of one half of its citizenry, is hardly a new argument.
Christianity's nascent years were riddled with political rivalries, excommunications and violent suppression of dissent.
Amid this religio-political maelstrom, there were groups which elevated the stature of women in the Church. If they were victorious there would be no such debates as we have today regarding female clergy.
One such group was the Gnostics, a mystical sect that held its own views of the nature of Jesus and the feminine spirit personified in Mary Magdalene.
They argued that the feminine ideal had been expunged, suppressed and devalued. Rigorous academic research suggests that much.
The voluminous writings of the Gnostics (The Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip, Dialogues of the Saviour, Pistis Sophia, The Gospel of Mary) elevated the woman and challenged the authority of the apostles.
Mary was said to be very present at the Last Supper. It was believed that Jesus confided in her and she, in turn, was spiritually bestowed more than others. Gnosticism was eventually violently rooted out from the annals of orthodoxy.
Interestingly, Opus Dei, an influential order in the Roman Catholic Church, acknowledges the schism that existed between Mary and the apostles. This it attributes more to doctrinal difference than blind patriarchy.
Here, Opus Dei makes its case: "This opposition (to the apostles) is more likely to have been a conflict of doctrines: Peter and the other apostles confronting the ideas that these Gnostic groups were putting forward in the name of Mariam (Mary). In any case, having recourse to Mary was a way of justifying their gnostic ideas."
The document later states, "In other apocryphal gospels, especially the Gospel of Philip, Mariam (this time she is also cited with her name of origin, Magdalene) is a model of Gnosticism, precisely because of her femininity. She is the spiritual symbol of discipleship of Christ and of perfect union with him."
One of the most notable writers on this subject is Harvard historian Karen L King who posits that Jesus listened to, and followed the wisdom of the many female figures in the Bible.
She cites one transformative exchange that changed the trajectory of Jesus' parochial teachings and the Word became universal.
King argues that when Jesus identified the exclusively Jewish element of his ministry the spurned woman retorted that "even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." (Matthew 7:6)
These enlightening words indelibly changed the face of Christianity.
King concludes, "This is the beginning of the mission to the Gentiles, and it would have been remarkable to an ancient audience, because it's the only place in the Gospels where someone actually corrects Jesus - and that someone is a woman, and a foreign woman at that."
(See Brian Bethune's, 'Was Jesus Christ a Feminist - Some scholars contend the Messiah had female teachers, even apostles,' March 29, 2018)
King and Gnosticism are clearly at odds with the Church's position on women and the clergy. Moreover, we can deduce from some early Christians that Paul's admonition of women preachers was not shared by everyone.
Clearly, to hold that the apostles were immune to the politics of power is naive at best.
Despite evidence that the integrality of women in the early Church was challenged and ultimately devalued, it still manages to play an essential role in Christendom.
We cannot deny that there is no Roman Catholicism without Mary (Jesus' mother).
Complementarianism in the Church has, and must continue to be promoted. The intermediary role of Mary shouldn't be slighted and so, too, the role of countless female saints that bring comfort, inspiration and gifts of miracles to believers. (There are stand-alone, exclusive orations and rituals directed to Mary and female saints).
Paradoxically, the Church remains legislatively overseen by a sacerdotal class that is all male.
As women scholars continue to revisit religious history we should expect more truths to be revealed and embraced, all part of the empowering movement of women now sweeping the globe.
A word of caution though, in matters of cultural and spiritual reclamation, there are always risks of advancing extremist views.
In this particular case, the male god, the purported creator, can find himself removed by a female god with an overwhelming female base, not unlike identity politics where there "is a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics".
But spirituality is not politics. It is a existential matter not to be manipulated for self-serving agendas. God has no favourites - no chosen people, no chosen class, race or gender.
We might not agree with the great Spinoza that God (the sum of all natural and physical laws) is neither an entity nor creator but, we could at least agree that it (God) is unlike anything we can imagine.
For more than a millennia we have glorified a white, masculine god, with devastating results. Switching phenotypes (physical make-up) in the name of gender equality will only lead to the same woeful results.