Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Even Looser Ends

(Responding to comments on previous thread. I will get back to writing about funnybooks soon, I promise.) 

Before writing anything about religion, I really ought to write, "I AM NOT NEARLY AS PIOUS AS I AM PROBABLY SOUNDING" in large letters at the top of the page.

The religious don't think of God as only, or even mostly, as Universe Createy Guy. (This is why most of them found that Hevolution required only relatively minor adjustments.) So I don't think that saying "God is like a father" can be mostly a way of conceptualizing the concept of Creation. In any case, Christians almost never talk in terms of God bringing the universe into being like a father bringing a child into being. If anything, it's more like a craftsman constructing something. (Hence "begotten, not created" in the Creed.) The reluctance to call God "Mother" is possibly connected to this: "God the Mother" is always in danger of giving birth to the universe, which changes the way you think the universe is related to God. Joseph Campbell goes on and on about this. 

Note that I didn't say "If Christians are right to conceptualizes God as sky-father..."; I said "If Christians are right to call God 'Father'" (or, as I then said "Daddy"). 

"What we call God" = "How we address God" = "What kind of relationship we think we have with God". 

Is there an imaginative difference between thinking that you can approach the divine as "Daddy" and thinking you can approach it as "Mummy"? 

I think there possibly is, maybe. 

At any rate, masculine imagery is used right through the Bible, and once you've said "God is neuter", "God is hermaphrodite" or "God is an energy field created by all living thing, he surrounds us, penetrates us and binds the galaxy together" you'd have to rethink all the other images and metaphors in the Bible. What would you do with the mystical wedding feast of the Lamb in the book of Revelation; the allegorical level of the Song of Songs; the parable of the Prodigal Son; the story of the Seven Foolish Virgins waiting for the Bridegroom; etc etc etc?

This is the problem with ultra free translations of the Bible. All very cute for Miss Muir to tell us that the Missionaries sometimes taught Natives that Jesus said "I am the coconut of life", but how did they then deal with the passage about the Jews leaving Egypt in such a hurry that they had to eat unleavened coconuts, which is clearly relevant to the story of Jesus' giving coconuts and wine to his disciples.

An evangelical pastor once posted a "wayside pulpit" poster outside his church, reading:


Back in prehistory, when the Church of England first debated the whole question of Lady Vicars, I think the position of most of us liberal evangelicals was along the lines of "Well, we are far from sure that a vicar does act as the ikon of God, because we are far from sure that we believe in that clergy are "priests" in that sense. But we are quite sure that a female priest can be an ikon of God the father just as much as a male one can." 

I mean, that was what we thought when we weren't thinking "This is a rather obscure and technical point to be making quite such a lot of fuss about." 

The only time we became jumpy about the whole thing was when a minority of women's ordination exponents said "A female priest can be an ikon of God because the Bible and tradition is completely mistaken to think of God as father". "Oor, er" we said "It now sounds as if you are making a change to the whole grammar of faith rather than, as we thought, correcting an obvious and silly historical injustice." 

A woman's ordinands wrote to the Guardian and said "The only difference between me and Robert Runcie is that he has a penis and I don't." The great Auberon Waugh responded in his column "Even at the purely psyiological level, this argument is bollocks."  It is entirely possible that I have quoted that before. 

A 2007 post by me, entitled "A Completely Unfunny Posting" gets more hits, by a fact of about five to one, than anything else I have ever written. I initially thought that, since it contains a lot of bad religious jokes, it must be linked to from some religious or theophobic website that I can't find. It has been pointed out to me, however, that in the course of the piece I frivolously refer to Mr Dawkin's imaginary "memes" as "midichlorians", so the hits are probably coming from very disgruntled Star Wars fans, none of whom have bought my book.


Steve said...

Crossing out 'Father' and replacing it with 'Mother' also rather changes the flavour of the Trinity: a Jesus calling out to his Mother on the Cross? (Or rather he called out to his Father but knew it was just a figure of speech and Mother would have done just as well.) Quite apart from the question of why Jesus was in fact a man and not a woman and to what extent it matters, one's going to have to muck around with one's Christology a bit to deal with this, which one might or might not want to do, depending. Deep waters.

Lirazel said...

I come at this from an unusual perspective. First, I was raised in a very liberal Jewish household in the USA. My parents joined the Unitarian church when I was nine (loosely, this had to do with racial justice issues); to everyone's astonishment, including mine, I became a Christian as a teenager and, some fifty years later, am a communicant in good standing of The Episcopal Church, USA, or as Andrew would say, C of E. Only, of course, we've had Lady Vicars and even Bishopesses for some time, and even queer lady vicars.

Also, I'm a human female.

Personally, I have no problem using the language Jesus used when addressing God. I also don't have a problem with Jesus being male, and I get rather annoyed with people who try to de-gender him. I do believe with all my heart that he is the really-o, truly-o Son of God, God "in the meat", one with us. People have gender, even androgynous people. If God's going to incarnate as a human, genitalia and the social constructs around them are going to be involved.

I consider the fact that God assumed gender as one of the many astonishing limitations God accepted as the price of coming to us incarnate; an incredible condescension, if you will, to our broken nature that could not, and cannot, perceive gender difference and gender equality at the same time. This disability in our thinking has sometimes made women superior, sometimes men; I know of no human society where difference doesn't engender dominance. You might even call it our original sin.

And now I am going to get inelegant, even nasty, as we women are wont to do.

Women cleaned the afterbirth off Jesus, wiped his behind, wiped his nose, toilet-trained him, made his clothing, cooked his meals, cleaned up his sick when he had tummy troubles, rocked him to sleep, told him bed-time stories... in later life, one of us washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Women did their hasty best to prepare his body for burial before that mournful Sabbath, and were prepared to go back and do a better job three days later, even though it would have been smelly by that time.

And we're not fit to handle the Body of Christ? Not fit to rule in his church?

Women also argued with him, told him off from time to time, listened along with the men, and often surpassed the men who knew him best in the outrageousness of their faith. "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs pick up the crumbs the children leave behind." And so on. You might even say that Jesus told parables to men, but he told the direct truth to women.

The person who denies our priesthood denies his own. You can't be a believer and not be a priest. I choose to cede my priesthood to the professed clergy because I believe that most of them are called to that work, just as I am called to my work and life. But it's still my priesthood, and my gender is not what keeps me from its direct exercise.

I hope that's clear...

Andrew Stevens said...

Lirazel, that's because in the U.S. the Puritans won and Episcopalians are now universally "low church." As can be seen in the phrase "you can't be a believer and not be a priest." Mr. Rilstone is from roughly the same tradition, but the Church of England also has a "high church" Anglo-Catholic doctrinal strand. In the low church tradition, I think most everybody agrees that there is no real problem with women priests because priests don't act as icons of God, have no particularly special function at all, and there is no sacred Apostolic Succession.

Gavin Burrows said...

Before writing any comments about religion here, I really ought to write “I know almost nothing about this sort of thing. Imagine if someone was posting about Spider-Man but had only seen some of the Saturday morning cartoons and never read the Ditko comics. Only worse. I once went to Sunday School, but didn’t inhale.”

I should probably write that in great big capital letters.

So, having already admitted to knowing almost nothing about this sort of thing, I don't think I ever imagined God-as-creator as the crucial thing. I imagined it was all about the luuuurve, the concept that God loves us, all of us, as only a parent can. Clearly God-as-creator is a factor in that conception, but not necessarily the killer app.

Evangelists who stand in the street shouting “Jesus loves you” at random passers-by are in my opinion behaving in a foolish and patronising way. In my younger, more piss-and-vinegar days I used to snap back “not as much as I do,” before heading off to the meeting about post-Soviet syndicalism or whatever it was. But even if the method may be misplaced, if you were forced to come up with a three-word condensation of Christianity… it’s not bad, is it?

”"It now sounds as if you are making a change to the whole grammar of faith rather than, as we thought, correcting an obvious and silly historical injustice."

…which, I suppose, is the crucial question here. I, Gavin Burrows, know almost nothing of this sort of thing. And yet even I know that God is historically spoken of as a father and Jesus as male. But, to paraphrase Salisbury, that was in a time and place when public figures pretty much had to be male. So my question was, do Christians nowadays still need to maintain all the aspects of this to still think of themselves as Christians?

I have avoided mentioning it up till now, but actually I know almost nothing about this sort of thing. But I’m afraid I don’t really follow as to where the problem lies. (The problem being blessing gay marriage. I don't think anyone ever spoke in favour of prayers starting “Our Mother”, or against women priests.) If there are images, metaphors and parables of God as male, that’s hardly a problem in itself. Those things are only pointers, after all. A coconut can represent something one minute, and the next unleavened bread.

I’d gather your 're saying not that those images have reached a threshold point beyond which there’s no return, so much as they map together in a kind of constellation - and adjusting the parts is likely to wreck the whole. But beyond that my puny powers desert me, I’m afraid.

On the other hand, I’m not at all discounting the possibility that the answer to my question is no or rejecting the notion that in life it's not a bad idea to defer to people who know what they are talking about. In which case we’ll just have to disagree about the original question. At which point I’ll go back to lurk mode.

Lirazel said...

Umm... Mr. Stevens, sir? You are incorrect. I invite you to check out my parish, St. Paul's, Malden, MA -- particularly on a feast day -- and then to engage our priest in discussion about whether we believe in apostolic succession and the priest acting as an icon of God.

From which it follows that we are all icons of God.

Andrew Stevens said...

Surely you will grant that it is a very different conception of the Apostolic Succession than that of the Catholic Church, yes? It rather has to be given your own understanding of it (everybody is a priest), which is much closer to the traditional Protestant view as espoused by Calvin and Luther.

I am saying that there are some Anglicans (probably only a minority) who have a belief in the Apostolic Succession which is much closer to the Catholic conception, along with the view that ordained priests act as essential intermediaries between the laity and God. The Anglicans have always been an odd sort of halfway house between Protestantism and Catholicism, but they're much closer to total Protestantism in the U.S. than in the mother country.

I 100% agree that for strictly Protestant denominations, it makes no real sense to object to female pastors. I believe the Southern Baptists are just about the last holdout among the purely Protestant. Their argument against female pastors, unlike that of the Catholics, simply won't withstand scrutiny, given the rest of their beliefs, for the reasons you so eloquently gave in your first comment on this thread. But I do believe the Catholics are in a very different position, doctrinally speaking.

Lirazel said...

Well, when I was considering of these things, I spent some time looking at Roman Catholic doctrine, but it's been a while, so I will grant you that their position on the priest as representative of Christ and the Apostolic succession is... hmm. I don't want to say "less intellectualized," because I actually think there's been too much building up of logical castles in the air on the subject in that theology. But perhaps "more direct" is what I mean. The symbolic is closer to the actual.

However, Apostolic Succession is important enough to us USA Episcopalians that when we reached a concordat some years ago with the larger of our two synods of Lutherans, we officially gave up our stated understanding of the nature of the Eucharist (Hooker's "faith in the heart of the believer") in favor of their consubtantiation, but insisted in exchange that they accept Aposotolic Succession. Consequently, every Lutheran ordination now has an Episcopalian bishop in attendance, to pass on the official Hand, as it were. And it's why bishops can only be ordained by other bishops, and so on.

It's also why our original priests bothered going to Scotland to get ordained, after the War of Independence. The C of E wasn't about to let their bishops ordain rebels, but the Scots didn't care so much -- and they were in the line of Apostolic Succession.

So yes, it matters. It's one of the main connecting lines back to the Source.

(Personally, I think Hooker got it right, but that's another subject.)

Andrew Stevens said...

Lirazel: I don't think we end up having much to disagree about then. I would say that, if you no longer believe that "laying on hands" actually passes the Holy Spirit and all of that and do believe that "everybody's a priest" and all of that, then it's not so clear that there's any reason to carry on the traditions of the Apostolic Succession other than tradition itself. I think that's what you're saying with "It's one of the main connecting lines back to the Source." I.e. it gives everybody a feeling of being part of a long tradition even though they don't believe God cares about any of that stuff.