Saturday, October 27, 2012

Is God's Nature "Father" and not "Mother"?

There is an argument among Christians today about whether the Father God can also be thought of as a Mother.  Paul R. Smith's Book Is it Ok to Call God Mother? - Considering the Feminine Face of God answers "yes."  Many other Christians have also pointed out the many feminine/motherhood metaphors describing God both in the Old and New Testaments.  Clearly, according to Genesis 1:27, both male and female humans are made in the image of God; therefore, though God is a Spirit and without gender, God's nature must encompass both male and female.  Shouldn't this mean that God our Father is also God our Mother?

Certainly not, other Christian groups say.  Jesus, they point out, taught us to call God "Father," but He never called God "Mother."  Some cite Ephesians 3:14-15:

For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named. (KJV) -- which in some translations reads:  "from whom all fatherhood, earthly or heavenly, derives its name" (Phillips) or "of whose fatherhood all heavenly and earthly fatherhood is a copy" (Barclay, Daily Study Bible).

Proponents of this doctrine say that theologically, we need to discard the idea that being Father means God is male; but the nature of God is Fatherhood, and all fatherhood on earth springs from God's very essence.  "Father" is what God is called-- one of God's names-- and therefore describes the nature of God.  But since God is not called "Mother" in the scriptures, the motherhood images of God are merely metaphors-- word pictures to help us understand something about God, just as referring to God's "feathers" (Psalm 91:4) does not make God a bird.  God is Father, not Mother-- and indeed, some who teach this insist that it is actually blasphemy to refer to God as Mother.

There are problems with this teaching, however.  First of all, the word translated "fatherhood" in certain translations of Ephesians 3:15 is the Greek word "patria"  As I quoted above, the King James version translates this as "family," as do most other translations, with only a few using "fatherhood."  There are only three instances in the New Testament where this word "patria" is used.

Luke 2:4 - And Joseph went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into. . . Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage (patria) of David.

Acts 3:25 - Ye are the children of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made. . . saying unto Abraham, And in thy seed shall all the kindreds (patria) of the earth be blessed. 

And, of course, Ephesians 3:15 - Of whom the whole family (patria) in heaven and earth is named.

Ephesians 3:14-15 does make a play on words between "Father (pater) of our Lord Jesus Christ" and "of whom the whole family (patria) of heaven and earth is named."  God the Father is seen as the Pater of the patria, which is a word linguistically related to "father."  But just because it is related to the word "father" does not make this word mean "fatherhood"!  "Fatherhood," as proponents of this teaching mean it, is "the state or nature of being a father."  But patria is not a concept word referring to a state of being; it is a concrete word referring to a group of people that are related by familial descent.  Therefore, meaning of this verse in its original language has to do with God being the source and engenderer of all people groups-- not the source of a state of being called "fatherhood" that women and mothers can never share.

This verse simply does not say that the nature of God is fatherhood and not motherhood.  In fact, there are certain implications of the idea that the nature of God is fatherhood and not motherhood, which the teachers of this doctrine may not have anticipated nor even desired.

1. If fatherhood is directly derived from God’s nature and motherhood is not, then what this would mean is that fatherhood is not only a biological thing, but a spiritual, divine thing, while motherhood is a biological thing only. This would mean that only fatherhood, and not motherhood, can have a spiritual dimension.

2. This wreaks havoc with the idea (which is often also believed by those who accept the doctrine of God-as-Father-only) that motherhood is a woman's highest calling. If motherhood is not spiritual and does not partake of the Divine Nature, how can it in any sense be a high calling?

3. This view degrades motherhood and thus womanhood, for if this necessary function of women does not reflect the nature of God, while the corresponding necessary function of men does reflect the nature of God, then women do not reflect God in one of the main aspects of the very nature of womanhood. ("Necessary" here is used in its meaning in logic-- not that it is necessary for women to be mothers, but that the potential  to be mothers and not fathers is "necessary" to the definition of womanhood.)  However, the holders of this doctrine usually believe men and women are both made in the image of God and are equal before God; that they just have different "roles."  But tying these roles into the nature of male vs. female humanity, and then saying the female role does not reflect the nature of God, contradicts the assertion of equality.

4. To find it insulting to God, or blasphemous, to think of God as having a mother's nature as well as a father's, smells of misogyny. Why should the Motherhood of God be blasphemous, unless there is something unholy about motherhood/womanhood?

5.  If only fatherhood, and not motherhood, can have a spiritual dimension (see point 1), then women must also, being made in the image of God, be able to partake of this spiritual, divine thing called Fatherhood, so women must be able to be spiritual fathers. To say otherwise is to say women are not as much made in God’s image as men are.  And yet the idea that women as well as men can be spiritual fathers is distasteful to those who believe this doctrine-- most likely because they associate "fatherhood" with authority that they believe women were never intended by God to have.

So, given that one way of testing an idea is to follow it through to its implications-- the implications of this idea seem to end up in a very self-contradictory place!  Perhaps it makes more sense to say that the nature of God is to engender, which both fathers and mothers actually do, and that there are other reasons why God is not called our "Mother" in the Bible that are unrelated to whether motherhood is also God's nature.

I'm going to go through some of the arguments in an online reprinting of Why God is Father and Not Mother by Mark Brumley, managing editor of the Catholic Faith Magazine (who originally published this in the July/August issue of 1999), to see how well his arguments hold together and if another way of looking at the issues he raises makes more sense.

Brumley says:

Since Christians believe that Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, they must hold that He most fully reveals how we, by grace, should understand God: as Father. Otherwise they tacitly deny the central claim of their faith—that Christ is the fullness of God’s self-disclosure to man. Non-Christians may do that, of course, but Christians cannot—not without ceasing to be Christians in any meaningful sense of the word.

Here is the doctrine made explicit:  Jesus revealed God as "Father," and if we say otherwise, we are denying Christ and ceasing to be Christians.

The problem, of course, is that my understanding of the God-as-Mother concept is not that it denies the Fatherhood of God-- not at all.  Rather, that the Motherhood of God is a viable concept in addition to that of God's Fatherhood.  I am not saying we should stop viewing God as Father, but only that it is possible to view God as Father without excluding Mother.  Jesus, of course, stands in a special relation to God in that God is His Father in a way that God is not Father to the rest of us, except by adoption (see Galatians 4:5).  As Brumley himself says:

Now whatever else we say about God, we cannot say that He is Jesus’ mother, for Jesus’ mother is not God but Mary. Jesus’ mother was a creature; His Father, the Creator. "Father" and "Mother" are not, then, interchangeable terms for God in relation to Jesus.

Brumley then insists that if God was not Mother to Jesus, He [male pronouns for God are intended to be understood as generic here] cannot be Mother to us.  But that is precisely what Brumley cannot say, given his own words.  Jesus had no human father; He did have a human mother.  But the rest of us have both human mothers and human fathers.  Jesus could not call God His mother because God was exclusively His father.  God is not exclusively our Father, for we have human fathers as well.  Since God is our Father in a different way than He is Jesus' Father, it is not impossible that God could also be our Mother in that same way.

We cannot escape the fact that Jesus taught us to pray to "Our Father" and not "Our Mother."  But how restrictively should this be understood?  Brumley believes that it is wrong to call God anything other than what is revealed:

Undergirding Jesus’ teaching about God as Father is the idea that God has revealed Himself as to be such and that His revelation should be normative for us. God, in other words, calls the theological shots. If He wants to be understood primarily in masculine terms, then that is how we should speak of Him. To do otherwise, is tantamount to idolatry—fashioning God in our image, rather than receiving from Him His self-disclosure as the Father.

So is it wrong for humans to call God something other than what God calls Himself?  There is at least one place in scripture where a human does just that-- and God does not rebuke her.  Genesis 16 tells the story of how Hagar, Abraham's slave wife, was driven away by Sarah, and how God met Hagar in the wilderness.  Genesis 16:13 tells us, "And she [Hagar] called the name of the Lord who spoke to her 'You, God see me,' [or, "the God who sees"] for she said, 'Have I also here seen Him who sees me?'"   

There are actually many names for God used in the Old Testament, including names taken from other ancient religions.  There is one-- the name transliterated "Yahweh"-- which God calls His own Name, speaking to Moses in Exodus 3:14, but there is no indication that each and every other name used for God, including "El, "Adonai," and "Shaddai" [or "El Shaddai"], and "Ehyeh," were names God personally revealed to humanity as His names.  There are stories throughout the Old Testament where a person has an encounter with God and speaks of God using a new variation on one of these names.  Of course, Jesus' revelation of God should take primacy-- but there is simply no place where the Bible states that it is wrong for humans to give names to God.

Brumley goes on:

The fact is, whenever the Bible uses feminine language for God, it never applies it to Him in the same way masculine language is used of Him. Thus, the primary image of God in Scripture remains masculine, even when feminine similes are used: God is never called "She" or "Her." As Protestant theologian John W. Miller puts it in Biblical Faith and Fathering: "Not once in the Bible is God addressed as mother, said to be mother, or referred to with feminine pronouns. On the contrary, gender usage throughout clearly specifies that the root metaphor is masculine-father.

The question here, of course, is "why?"  Brumley dismisses the idea that the use of masculine pronouns and names for God could be driven by the patriarchal mindset of the times in which the Bible was written, but the fact remains that the word "father" (and other masculine names) in ancient times would have conveyed things God intended to reveal about Himself which the word "mother" (and other female names) could not have conveyed.  Women had no legal power in those times and were considered property to be transferred from male to male.  But this is no longer the case today.   Women today in society have the same rights and powers as men, and mothers today hold the same legal authority over their children that fathers do.  Therefore, the word "mother" no longer carries implications of powerlessness or dependence.

In fact, since fathers and mothers are different in the way they relate to their children (and children relate differently to them) motherhood conveys different concepts of relationship-- not inherently better, but different-- so that the desire to relate spiritually to a religious mother figure is widespread in humanity. Brumley, who says "Catholicism’s doctrine that Mary is the 'Mother of Christians' is correct," himself embraces a spiritual Mother in Mary. Protestants believe Mary should be honored as Christ's mother without becoming our own Mother. But many Protestants feel something lacking in relating to God only as Father. Is the desire for a divine mother-child relationship a genuine human need, and does it actually spring from the Motherhood of God? God is the One who said, after all, "As one whom his mother comforteth, so shall I comfort you." Isaiah 66:13. Though God does not call Himself "Mother" in the Bible, there certainly are promises of Motherhood in a verse like that one!

What are the reasons Brumley gives for why God is Father and not Mother, given that he disagrees that it has something to do with the Bible's patriarchal cultures? Brumley says:

A father is the "principle" or "source" of procreation in a way a mother is not. To be sure, both father and mother are parents of their offspring and in that sense both are causes of their offspring’s coming-to-be. But they are so in different ways. Both mother and father are active agents of conception (contrary to what Aristotle thought). But the father, being male, initiates procreation; he enters and impregnates the woman, while the woman is entered and impregnated. There is an initiatory activity by the man and a receptive activity by the woman.

This idea is inherently male-centered in perspective.  As Brumley says, it used to be thought that only the father was an active agent of conception: that he contributed the "seed" to which the mother's body was merely the "soil" in which the seed was planted.  We now know that both mother and father produce a "seed"-- sperm and an egg-- which combine together to become a child.  But the idea that the father "enters" the mother to "impregnate" her is neither more nor less accurate than the idea that the mother "encompasses" the father in order to "take" his seed.  Many men can testify that when a woman wants to become a mother, it is frequently not the man who "initiates activity"!  In short, there is no reason why God's generative, life-giving power is not as physically analogous to motherhood as it is to  fatherhood.

Another idea of Brumley's is this:

Because the father procreates outside of himself, his child is symbolically (though in reality not wholly) other than his father. Likewise, the father is other than his child (though also not wholly). In other words, the father, as father, transcends his child. Fatherhood, in this sense, symbolizes transcendence in relation to offspring, though we also recognize that, as the "source" of his child’s life, the father is united or one with his child and therefore he is not wholly a symbol of transcendence.

On the other hand, because the mother procreates within herself—within her womb where she also nurtures her child for nine months—her child is symbolically (though in reality not wholly) part of herself. And similarly, the mother is symbolically (though in reality not wholly) part of her child. In other words, the mother, as mother, is one with her child. Motherhood, in this sense, symbolizes immanence, though we recognize that as a distinct being, the mother is also other than her child and therefore not wholly a symbol of immanence. . . .

Which leaves us with the obvious question, "If this is so, why does traditional theology use only male language for God?" The answer: because God’s transcendence has a certain priority over His immanence in relation to creation. . .

To prevent God’s transcendence from being lost sight of and God being wrongly reduced to, or even too closely identified with, His creation, language stressing transcendence—masculine terms such as father —is necessary. . .

Thus, in order to express adequately God’s infinite transcendence and to avoid idolatrously identifying God with the world (without severing Him from His creation, as in deism), even on the metaphorical level we must use fatherly language for God. Motherly language would give primacy to God’s immanence and tend to confuse Him with His creation (pantheism). This does not exclude all maternal imagery—as we have seen even the Bible occasionally employs it—but it means we must use such language as the Bible does, in the context of God’s fatherhood.

In other words, God’s Fatherhood includes the perfections of both human fatherhood and human motherhood. Scripture balances transcendence and immanence by speaking of God in fundamentally masculine or paternal terms, yet also occasionally using feminine or maternal language for what is depicted as an essentially masculine God.

In a self-contradictory fashion, Brumley here associates masculinity with God's essence while simultaneously admitting that both motherhood and fatherhood image the nature of God-- one through transcendence and one through immanence.  I am inclined to agree that this analogy (fatherhood is to transcendence as motherhood is to immanence) has some merit.  However, I am not at all convinced by Brumley's idea that if we think of God as Mother, we will lose sight of God's transcendence and become pantheists. This would only be the case if we replaced the idea of God as Father with the idea of God as Mother.  But if we think of God as both Father and Mother, then God's immanence and God's transcendence achieve a balance.  

You see, I am also not convinced that God's transcendence should be given priority over God's immanence.  Jesus came to reveal God the Father-- but the Father also revealed the Son as Emmanuel-- "God with us."  Matthew 1:23. The Holy Spirit came from Father and Son and now dwells within us.  John 14:17.  And Psalm 139:7-10 states:

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there:
if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
even there shall thy hand lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me.

All of these are ideas of immanence.  If we focus on God's transcendence to the point where it takes priority over God's immanence, we can end up with a distant, removed God who commands from afar, and can miss the fact that God is very near.  In many branches of Christianity, it is transcendence, not immanence, which is overbalanced in Christians' worship and service of God.

Brumley concludes by discussing the Trinity and the Incarnation in terms of Fatherhood, in that it is necessary to see God as containing an eternal, engendering relationship between God the Father and God the Son, who nonetheless are One.  As a Trinitarian, I wholeheartedly support this-- though I think Brumley is associating "Father" with maleness and supposed male authority, in spite of his assertions to the contrary.   When he says:

Thus, within the Trinity, there is fundamental equality—each Person is wholly God—and basic difference—each Person is unique and not the Others, not interchangeable. And there is also sacred order, with the Son begotten of the Father and the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son. This shows that equality and difference, and even equality and hierarchy, need not be understood as opposed to one another. . . .

--he is arbitrarily adding an idea of hierarchy to the Trinity, and from there to human male-female relations, that is simply unnecessary and without basis.*  Once he has done so, he has weakened the female and rendered it dependent, which may be at the heart of why he disagrees with ascribing motherhood to God. 

In short, there is no reason to follow Brumley's reasoning to deny the Motherhood of God, especially in light of the negative implications that I have described early in this post as proceeding from such a denial.  I believe it is most accurate, therefore, to say that God's nature and essence encompass both fatherhood and motherhood.  

Both fathers and mothers reflect God's image when they relate to their children.  And we can relate to God both as a Father and Mother.  

For which I am truly thankful. 


*Note: I have discussed this further in Part 3 of my series, The Bible and Human Authority.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Rant: MSN, Rachel Held Evans, and Slapdash Journalism

Popular Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans recently published a book called A Year of Biblical Womanhood, in which she documents her year-long experiment of living as literally as possible according to every Bible passage about women.  Inspired by A. J. Jacobs' book The Year of Living Biblically, Ms. Held Evans' book gives a new, female perspective on "living biblically" that Mr. Jacobs never contemplated.

I received my copy as a birthday present a few days ago.  So far I'm finding the book to be a pithy, thoughtful and thought-provoking look at perceptions of womanhood in Bible times and today-- about what it means, and has meant historically, to be a woman.  But yesterday evening my husband, opening an online article on MSN, began voicing irritation and disgust.  "What does MSN think they're doing?" he wanted to know-- and pointed me to a one-paragraph blurb regarding Rachel Held Evans' year-long experiment:  Tennessee Woman Lives Biblically for One Year.

The blurb begins: "Living strictly according to the Bible's instructions for women was no picnic for Rachel Held Evans, a blogger from Dayton, Tenn." From there it mentions as briefly as possible the most eyebrow-raising things Ms. Held Evans did, including sleeping in a tent during her period and calling her husband "master." There is no mention of her book or her reasons for writing it.  MSN concludes: "Oh, the trials of the stunt blogger."

"Stunt blogger."  This is how apparently views Rachel Held Evans, and this is how it wants its readers to perceive her-- even though the source they linked to, International Business Times, has made it clear that Ms. Held Evans did her "experiment" with the intention of writing the book which she did indeed write.  Noting that she is "both a devout Christian and a feminist," the IB Press also takes the time to quote Rachel on her reasons for the experiment and the book:   "I wanted to sort of challenge that the Bible prescribes one right way to be a woman of faith. . . . The more women know about the Bible the more they can respond when people try to silence them."

My husband and I were both very annoyed with MSN's apparent intention to present Rachel Held Evans as a publicity-seeker and a nut.  The readers' comments on their article were about what you'd expect, given its tone and its dearth of information or explanation.   The comments all more or less fit within the following paraphrases: 

"Crazy Bible-belt Christians."

"I hate it when non-Christians like her mock the Bible and Christianity."

"She's just trying to get attention.  Hope she's satisfied with her five minutes of fame."

"She's completely misunderstanding the Bible.  Apparently she's never read *insert verse of reader's choice.*"

"What do you expect from a backward, primitive, silly book like the Bible?  If you were all just being honest, you'd either live like she just did, or throw the Bible out."

Five minutes of fame.  A blurb on MSN.  That has to be all Ms. Held Evans really wanted or was trying to accomplish. 

But I don't really blame the commenters.  They're just acting according to standard Internet practices, responding to what they read without attempting to read further unless they're really interested.  And why should they be interested to learn more, given that MSN has painted her as a mere "stunt blogger"? 

How can these readers know she's a college-educated author who has published two intelligent and articulate books on Christianity and culture, both of which are eye-opening reads?  She's just a crazy Christian who takes the Bible too literally-- or a spiteful non-Christian who wants to discredit it.   They're going to take their pick, because they aren't going to learn anything more.  Not from MSN.  Not unless they click on the IB Press source link, which most of them won't bother to do.

As far as I can see, there's only one reason why MSN would present this story the way it did.  Because it can write a curiosity-inspiring headline about someone doing something outrageously odd, which people will want to click on and talk about.  Actual facts not required-- facts just get in the way of the news sensation.

Hmm.  There does seem to be someone who is only seeking a flash of attention and publicity.  But it's not Rachel Held Evans.


Saturday, October 13, 2012

Forgotten Women in Church History: Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1651-95)

The nation of Mexico has never forgotten Sor [Sister] Juana Ines de la Cruz.  Her face is on the 1000-peso bill.  Her family home has been converted into a park, with a statue of her in the gardens and passages of her poetry inscribed on the walls.  The convent where she spent most of her life is now a cultural center in her honor.  And yet in the American Evangelical branch of Christianity, her name is virtually unknown.

One of the greatest lyric Spanish poets of all time, brilliant scholar and medieval philosopher,  translator of the works of St. Jerome from Latin into Spanish, and champion of women's education in a time when education was largely denied even to nuns, Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz (born as Juana de Asbaje y Ramirez) was born in a small village near Mexico City, illegitimate child of a poor unmarried couple.  By the age of three she could read, coaxing her schoolteacher to give her special lessons.  By the age of eight, after only 20 lessons in Latin grammar, she was able to read philosophical and theological works in that language.  But being female, Juana received little formal education.  She begged to be allowed to dress as a boy and attend the university.  Instead, she was given the run of her grandfather's library, where she educated herself.

At sixteen she became maid-in-waiting to Vicereine Doña Leonor Carreto, Marquesa de Mancera.  It is reported that her mistress's husband the Viceroy Marquis "tested Sor Juana's knowledge with a barrage of learned men, theologians, philosophers, mathematicians, historians, poets, and other specialists; the ease with which she answered their questions and argued her points put to rest once and for all her intellectual brilliance." 

When she came of age, Sister Juana chose the veil (stating later that she rejected the very idea of marriage), and entered the convent of Santa Teresa la Antigua, a very strict and severe order of nuns.  Within six months, unable to bear the rigidity of this life, she moved to the convent of San Jeronimo, where she would spend the rest of her life.  San Jeronimo's permitted her to have her own library and study, and to correspond and even converse (though behind protective barriers) with learned men from the Court and the University.  Sister Juana flourished in these conditions, amassing a huge library and completing many poems, carols, dramatic compositions and works of theology and philosophy.  She remained friends with the Marquis and Marquesa even after they completed their term as viceroy and vicereine.

But when her noble protectors left for Spain, Sister Juana began to have trouble with the church establishment.  In particular, the Bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, while pretending to be her friend, harbored secret jealousy-- especially when she dared challenge the thinking of other male church leaders.  When the Bishop entered into a discussion with her regarding a famous sermon given forty years earlier by the eminent Portuguese Jesuit, Antonio de Vieira, Sister Juana took the side of Augustine, Chrysostom and Aquinas, whom de Vieira's sermon had attacked.  

Bishop Fernández pretended to be impressed with Sister Juana's critique and asked her to put it in writing-- upon which he published it without her permission, and then, using the female pseudonym "Sor Filotea," admonished her publicly for "her preoccupation with worldly affairs and for the lack of biblical subjects in her poetry and study."   The Bishop's letter amounted to an attack on the rights of women in the church to study and learn scripture and doctrine.  Sister Juana's reply, the Respuesta a Sor Filotea ["Reply to Sister Filotea"] has been called "one of the glories of early Latin-American Literature, and one of the most remarkable pieces of writing ever produced by a woman."

Sister Juana begins her reply by discussing her own early life-- how hungry she was for knowledge and learning since her earliest memory; how, even when she was denied books and reading, she found herself studying the world around her and the most minute examples of nature's complexity.  God made me this way, she appears to be saying, and how can you tell Him He should not have made a woman like this?

Going on to defend the right of women to learn despite social restrictions and the disapproval of local church leaders, Sister Juana maintains that from earliest Christianity the Church has officially acknowledged Paul's admonition in 1 Timothy 2:11:  "Let a woman learn."

"It is not only licit [permitted] for them to study, write, and teach privately, but it is very beneficial and useful for them to do so," Sister Juana stated, lamenting the fact that there were at that time so many uneducated women in the church that the biblical mandate in Titus 2 for older women to teach younger women was now almost impossible, and any religious instruction women received had to be done by men, which put young women in danger of impropriety.  Though she did not challenge the Church's prohibition against women teaching or preaching as church leaders, Juana protested vehemently those misogynistic interpretations which led men to forbid women even to study or learn.  She said:

All this [the cumulative Scripture passages on women taken together] requires more study than what some men think, who. . . wish to interpret the Scriptures and who cling to Mulieres in Ecclesiis taceant [women be silent in church] with an iron grip, without knowing how they should be understood. In another passage, Mulier in silentio discat [women learn in silence]— which passage is more for women than against them— women are ordered to learn, and of course women must keep quiet while they are learning.

And defending the right of a woman to think for herself and to weigh the words of a mere priest like de Vieira against the words of the Church Fathers, Sister Juana questioned:

[Was the piece I am being reprimanded for writing] anything more than simply relating my views with all of the sanctions [permissions] for which I am grateful to our Holy Mother Church?  For if she, with her most holy authority, does not so forbid me, why must others so forbid me?  Was it too bold of me to express an opinion in opposition to Vieyra, while it wasn't so for his Reverend Father [de Vieira] to express an opinion in opposition to the Church's three Holy Fathers [Augustine, Chrysostom and Aquinas]? My understanding, such as it is, is it not as free as his, since it comes from the same backyard? Is his opinion [on] any one of the revealed principles of our Holy Faith such that we must believe it with our eyes shut?

All of the opposition against her, Sister Juana implied, was not based on Church teaching or policy, but on the jealousy of male church leaders who disliked it that a woman knew more than they did.  Her "Reply to Sister Filotea" has thus come to be "hailed as the first feminist manifesto."  Sister Juana herself is considered "The New World's first great woman."

Sister Juana later wrote that this exchange between herself and Bishop Fernández was part of "a rouse of . . . persecutions, so many that I cannot even count. . . I have been persecuted for my love of wisdom and literature. . . I have been persecuted through hate and malevolence."  

When Sister Juana was 40 years old, floods overwhelmed Mexico, followed by famine.  Sister Juana then gave up her 4000-volume library and all her musical and scientific instruments, and ceased writing.  Whether this was under duress is debated, but the fact remains that she was under great pressure from church leaders, and even her own priest, to do so.   She died in 1695 of the plague while caring for those of her convent sisters who had contracted the disease.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz's life story creates an object lesson for today.  How often, then and now, do church leaders go far past even what they claim the Bible "plainly" teaches, to restrict women so that they do not pose a threat or source of competition to men?  I have heard stories of prominent evangelical leaders today cautioning women that even when giving travel directions to a man, they must do so in such a way as to honor the man's authority-- even though there is no passage anywhere in Scripture that even appears to give all men authority over all women! I have heard of churches where women are forbidden even to usher people to their seats or to collect the offering.  Where a woman cannot stand on the stage at the front of the church even to make an announcement about a church activity.

And why are women told that their highest calling is motherhood, when the Bible nowhere says any such thing?  Often it is to keep them at home, out of competition with men.  But Jesus never told a woman to go home and bear children.  And "women's highest calling is motherhood" is hardly the "plain meaning" of a difficult verse like ""she shall be saved through childbearing."

The promulgators of these sorts of teachings really need to examine themselves, particularly if they claim that Scripture, and the "plain sense" of Scripture, is their only guide for faith and practice.  Is this the plain sense of Scripture-- or it is plain misogyny?  Let Sister Juana, who was persecuted by men in the church for doing what the Scriptures clearly permitted and even encouraged her to do, speak to us  from the grave:

"Is [a human church leader's] opinion on any one of these principles such that we must believe it with our eyes shut?"  

Wise words, Sister.



Oregon State University research

University of Cambridge: Latin American Studies

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz: Reply to Sister Filotea and an outline of the Reply

Lake Chapala Review: Women of Mexico

Tucker and Liefeld, Daughters of the Church, Zondervan (1987), pp. 212-213

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Atonement: Did God Just Really Need to Punish Someone?

It's called the "penal substitution" doctrine of the Atonement.  It means that God, being just and holy, demands that all sin be punished, and that Jesus Christ substituted Himself for us and received in our place the punishment that is due to us.  And according to certain branches of Christianity, it is the only allowable version of the Atonement you can believe and still be a true Christian.  As Southern Baptist minister Al Mohler says in his article, "Penal Substitutionary Atonement is the Gospel":

This either is the Gospel, or, it is not. The dividing line is abundantly clear; we either believe that the sum and substance of the Gospel is that a holy and righteous God—Who must demand a full penalty for our sin—both demands the penalty and provides the penalty, through His Own self-substitution in Jesus Christ—the Son—whose perfect obedience, and perfectly accomplished atonement, has purchased for us all that is necessary for our salvation—has met the full demands of the righteousness and justice of God against our sin.

We either believe that, or we do not. If we do not, then we believe that the Gospel can be nothing more than some kind of message intended to reach some emotive level in the human being, so that the human being would think better of God, and might want to associate with Him. . . .

If you will deal with it, if you will read it, if you will honestly reflect upon it—if you will work through the biblical texts—it will become a matter of [ir]refutable truth; that the central thrust of the Scriptures atonement, is that God demanded a punishment for sin, and requires it by His own holiness and justice, and that He provided it in Jesus Christ—Who died on our behalf—paying in full the penalty for our sin.

The problem, of course, is that if this is really what the Atonement is all about-- if it's about a God who just cannot be appeased unless He can punish somebody-- it doesn't speak very well for the character of God.  And if the One God chooses to punish is His innocent Son-- well, many who have left Christianity or who refuse to embrace it, reject it because God seems to them to be a monster.  A "divine child abuser," I have heard them say.  "Fixated on punishment."

Many Christians disagree with this idea for the same sorts of reasons.  New Testament Professor James McGrath's blog Exploring Our Matrix puts it like this:

First, the Bible regularly depicts God as forgiving people. If there is anything that God does consistently throughout the Bible, it is forgive. To suggest that God cannot forgive because, having said that sin would be punished, he has no choice but to punish someone, makes sense only if one has never read the penitential psalms, nor the story of Jonah. The penal substitution view of atonement takes the metaphor of sin as debt and literalizes it to the extent that one’s actions are viewed in terms of accounting rather than relationship. It is not surprising this is popular: in our time, debts are impersonal and most people have them, and it is easier to think of slates being wiped clean and books being balanced than a need for reconciliation. But the latter is the core element if one thinks of God in personal terms. . .

The moral issue with penal substitution is closely connected with the points just mentioned. Despite the popularity of this image, to depict God as a judge who lets a criminal go free because he has punished someone else in their place is to depict God as unjust.

So there is a serious disagreement between Christians like Mohler, who claim that if you don't believe the Atonement is about penal substitution, you don't believe the Gospel at all, and Christians like McGrath, who believe the penal substitutionary model is unhelpful and not actually what the Bible teaches.  

Where do I fall in all this?  Somewhere in the middle, actually.

It seems to me that at times the Bible does present the Atonement -- Christ's death on the Cross-- in the light of penal substitution.  Isaiah 53:8-10 does say, "[F]or he was cut off from the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. . . Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand."  But this is not the only picture or description of the Atonement in the Bible!  And it seems to me that viewing the Atonement in terms of penal substitution casts God as a monster only if you insist on taking it as a literal fact instead of as a picture or description to help us understand something which is actually beyond the ability of finite minds to fully understand.  

I believe that like many mysteries of the divine, the Atonement is not something we can even talk about except in terms of analogy and approximation.  Narrowly taking one of the Bible's analogies/approximations and claiming that it is the only truly Christian way to understand the Atonement, seems to me to leave out all the other analogies the Scriptures use to help us understand.  And rejecting the idea entirely, though it may help those who now find it barbaric, doesn't do much for those who really have been helped and comforted by the idea of their sin as a criminal debt that has been paid (see Colossians 2:13-14).  

But the Bible also presents the Atonement in terms of ransom.  Jesus said, "For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many."  We tend to look at ransom nowadays in terms of kidnapping or hostage-taking: a criminal has stolen your loved ones and wants payment before they can be released.  But in New Testament times, "ransom" was a word referring to the paying of the monetary value of a slave, in order to set that slave free.  Sharper Iron Forums puts it this way:

The ransom is the price that is paid to set the slave free. In the manumission ceremony, the money that the god paid to the owner to secure his freedom was the ransom. The verbal picture this word created in the minds of those in the first century was both graphic and meaningful. When Jesus announced that he was giving his life as the ransom, people understood that he was paying the price which would set them free. The analogy with slavery was graphic. They saw themselves as the slaves and Jesus as the one who paid the price. The price to set us free from sin and death was not 3 1/2 minae of silver; it was the very life of Jesus.

The Atonement is also presented in the Scriptures in terms of victory.  Colossians 2:15 says, "And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it [the cross]."   As theologian/apologist Greg Boyd teaches in his blog "The Christus Victor View of the Atonement":

The central thing Jesus did, according to Peter [in Acts 2:32-36], was fulfill Psalms 110:1. Jesus had been raised to a position of divine power (the Lord’s “right hand”) over his defeated and humiliated enemies (who are now his “footstool”). In an apocalyptic Jewish context, this is simply what it meant to say that Jesus brought the kingdom of God. To say the kingdom of God has come was to say the kingdom of Satan has been defeated.

The Atonement is also presented in the Scriptures in terms of sacrifice, which, though related to penal substitution, also encompasses all the meanings of the various sacrifices of the Old Testament.  Jesus is our sacrifice for sin according to Hebrews 10:2, but He is also our Passover Lamb according to 1 Corinthians 5:7 (a sacrifice that was more about deliverance than it was about sin).   His sacrifice is also about reconciliation and peace with God, as Colossians 1:20 says: "And having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things to himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth or things in heaven."

So all these different pictures, models and analogies define the Atonement for us in the New Testament.  It seems to me that all of them together are needed to approximate as closely as possible what the Atonement actually means.  The Bible's analogies are set forth in terms of what would be most helpful and understandable to the peoples and cultures in which they were originally presented.  If we take any one of them, such as penal substitution, and insist that this is the one and only way to view the Atonement-- when no one in our times and cultures, including ourselves, really understands deep down what a substitutionary sacrifice would have meant emotionally and intellectually to a reader back then-- is to hamstring the message of the Gospel as it might more deeply reach our minds and hearts today.  And to remove any one of them could mean to lose a piece of the whole picture.

I can understand why it doesn't make sense to to many people to look at the Atonement and say, "God just had to punish someone, and the perfect One to punish was His willing Son."  So I'm going to present a more modern picture of how the Atonement looks to me, based on the passages about it all taken together.  Keeping in mind that mine, too, is an attempt to describe the undescribable, this is how I see it:

The universe, as the Christian sees it, has a deeper reality underlying (and overarching) the physical world. The physical world came into being at the will of God. God is the Source of all Being-- but not in the deistic sense that God just started things off but remained detached or absent from them. God continually sustains the universe by His constant will.  [Note: this is a generic pronoun I'm using for convenience and is not meant to make a statement about the gender of God.]

All other consciousnesses spring from the consciousness of God. This doesn't mean God constantly directly interferes in the workings of the universe, however; God desires that humans, who are made in His image (having self-awareness and the ability to make choices) should be free agents.

The other thing about the underlying reality of God is what can best be described as pure, absolute goodness and love-- that is the nature of God. We can refer to it as spiritual Life. The free-will agents that God made, however (and I think God made other free-will agents than humans: beings without physical form, just as God is without physical form), having their own wills, separate from God-- they chose to separate themselves from God. But to separate yourself from absolute good and absolute love, is to become other than good, and other than loving. It is to introduce evil and hate. This evil and hate-- we can call it spiritual Death-- has stained the physical universe. It is a blight, an uncleanness, which exists in the universe but cannot ultimately survive within the absolute goodness and love which is God. And it is destructive. It tears apart the relationships which God intended His self-aware beings to live in, with God and with each other. This blight is known as "sin." It's like an infection which cannot be tolerated; it must eventually all be removed, because left alone, it will eventually destroy the creation.  God has to do something about Death.  He can't just leave it alone; it's going to have to go.

Now, here's the problem. Humans are not only infected with Death (remember, we are not talking about physical death, but something else entirely), but they are also making choices, every day, to continue in Death. So-- how to remove the infection without destroying the humans it has infected? God, being absolute Love, does not want to destroy the beings He made for the purposes of loving and being loved.

First of all, God has to get the humans to understand that the infection exists, and that it has to be removed. So He picks one human tribe thousands of years ago, for a start, and begins to restore His broken relationship with humanity through them. He sets up the Law, with its system of blood sacrifice of animals. He makes sure the people understand that the blood represents life, because only life can cleanse/remove the death that is sin.

Once the idea, Blood Equals Life (Leviticus 17:11), is firmly in the people's minds, then God can do what He intended to do all along. His absolute Life will cleanse the Death that is evil and hate. But He can only do this if He becomes able experience Death Himself. The Death is affecting the physical world, so God has to become physical. He incarnates Himself: He becomes human.

Now, because He is God, He can become not only a human-- He can become the Representative Human for all of humanity. In the spiritual world, as the Representative Human, He can identify Himself completely with all humans, so that all sin which has infected humanity can be imputed to Him. Once this is done, because He is also the Source of absolute Life, the physical blood He sheds can represent His Life. His Life can cleanse the Death, once for all time.

But there is one other problem. The free-will agents He has made are still free-will agents. He wants them that way-- because He wants them to love Him, and love that is forced isn't love.  It's worthless to Him. As free-will agents, they have to choose to partake of the cleansing He has accomplished-- or not. Also, because of the choices of the free-will agents, the cleansing of Death has not removed Death from the Creation. Eventually, God is going to have to destroy the Death entirely, and that will destroy any free-will beings who continue to embrace Death. But now there's another choice.

Just as God chose to spiritually identify Himself with all humanity, so each human can choose to identify him/herself with God. If the human identifies with God, then the act in which God's Life was poured out against Death is imputed to the human, just as the human's sin was imputed to God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The choice the human makes is called "belief" or "faith" in God. But this is much more than just mental assent to the idea that God exists-- it means that the human places her/his trust in God, giving up her/his life of sin, and identifying her/himself with the pure Life and Love which is God. Through identification with God's Death, the human "dies" to sin (see Romans 6:4).  A spiritual transformation takes place within the human, in which the Death which was in the human's spirit is changed into the Life of God. To the human, this is experienced as an act of surrender. The human "loses his life for Christ's sake, and finds it" in Him again. The life which the human then walks in, is the life of God within the human spirit (See Galatians 2:20.)  Though the human's body is still living in the tainted universe, and the human still experiences sin as a struggle between the changed spirit and the unchanged body, one day we humans will live free from Death and sin, completely at one with God (1 John 3:2-3).

This is the "identification" model of the Atonement, and I have no doubt it has probably been described more eloquently by someone else, somewhere.   But I think it incorporates all the biblical ideas of penal substitution, ransom, victory, sacrifice and reconciliation, into a coherent picture that makes sense to me.

I hope it will be helpful to some of you, too.