What about the women? Women’s challenge to religion

2014-01-21 00:00

CONTROVERSY seethes in the Roman Catholic Church over interpretation of recently restored frescoes in the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome (The Witness, December 17, 2013).

Does the veiled woman in red robes, arms outstretched, show a woman priest saying mass, a “deaconess/priestly assistant” (cf. Pliny 1st century CE), or a woman in worshipful pose?

Catholic organisations advocating ordination of women see this figure as possible evidence of women priests in the early church.

But, as usual, the all-male clergy claim the final, authoritative word, condemning these suggestions as “sensationalist and absolutely not reliable”.

These same male voices proclaim that women can never become priests as Jesus chose only men as his disciples, surely a completely anachronistic interpretation. What does this pontification of a controlling patriarchal hierarchy reveal about meeting women’s religious needs, offering a truly liberating experience for women devotees who form over 50% of believers?

Whether the frescoes provide evidence of early women priests or not is irrelevant, but the desire of women to be accepted as full participants in the leadership of the church, offering their female perspective and voices, is a moral issue, one of rejecting injustice against women. The Roman Catholic Church’s attempts to control women’s sexuality by forbidding effective birth control, and abortion when women have more children than they can manage, impacts negatively on the lives of millions of women worldwide, victims of male manipulation, rendering them powerless and impoverished.

Robbing them of the ability to develop their full human potential, suggests a chauvinism out of touch with women’s position in the modern world.

Yet, all branches of Christianity, and other world religions — Judaism, Islam, Hinduism — have traditionally treated women as second-class devotees, deprived of the benefits granted men.

Feminist theologian Ursula King sums this up: “Wherever one looks in the world, religious institutions are dominated by men.

“Women are largely invisible, or at best, marginal to the public positions of power, authority and hierarchy. There are hardly ever ‘spokeswomen’ of religious institutions, whereas at the grassroots level, women almost everywhere form the participants in ordinary, day-to-day religious life.”

Women committed to transformation can either work from within religion, or admit that all traditions are irredeemably patriarchal, thwarting all reform.

Feminism endeavours to eliminate all systems, structures and attitudes that create or maintain patterns of male domination and female subordination.

It examines the status of women and the roles they are permitted to play, often denied access to religious institutions of advanced learning. Excluded from leadership roles, such as priests or ministers able to conduct religious services, this precludes them from any real authority, relegating them to marginal roles.

Sexist language and androcentric (“centring the male”) symbols sideline women, using language which effectively excludes them. Words are powerful, so scriptures that appear to address men exclusively, reflect a reality that ostracises women. Texts such as the Laws of Manu have succeeded in demeaning women: “In childhood subject to her father, in youth to her husband, and when her husband is dead to her sons, she should never enjoy independence.”

And the New Testament text I Timothy 2:11-13 also subjugates women: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I [Paul] permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”

Many passages emphasise the subordination of women, and often their highly ambivalent roles, such as either virgins or whores (Eve, the source of sin), their “uncleanness” excluding them from leadership roles, the inauspiciousness of widows in Hinduism effectively excluding them from society.

Sexist language in ritual and doctrine — all believers addressed as brothers and men (“mankind”), praising the forefathers, while ignoring most of the foremothers and sisters — renders them invisible and nameless.

Most religions employ sexist imagery for Divinity — God as male; He is Father. Terms such as Warrior, Conqueror, Ruler, Lord, Judge, evoke an authoritarian, domineering patriarch, alienating to women. Envisaging Ultimate Reality as omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient surely cannot include physical attributes such as gender. As Mary Daly said: “If God is male, then the male is God”, revealing a clearly sexist perspective: women are not made in his image.

Aspects of Hinduism envisage the divine creator as female — Mother — a clearly logical assumption.

Further, is women’s religious experience — everyday devotional practices, and the more intense religious experiences of illumination — regarded as significant as that of males? Throughout history, women such as Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Rabiah al-Adawijah, Mirabai, have enriched religions with their profound mystical insight. But these contributions, generally recorded and interpreted by men, have frequently been undervalued, and even dismissed.

Feminist theology, therefore, poses a radical challenge to traditional religion, advocating gender-free language, justice, equity and inclusivity, in an ongoing crusade for an emancipating, life-affirming religious experience, assisting women in their quest for wholeness and meaning.

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