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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

The Word According to Eve

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 5, 2000

 

This quest to bring women back-- back into the pages of history; back into our theological and spiritual consciousness-- is not, at its core, about mere "political correctness" (pain in the back that that can be at times). It's about justice. It's about restoring balance to our viewpoint, to the philosophical orientation that undergirds the way we look at the world. The hermeneutic -- there's a $25 theological term you won't hear bandied about around here very often-- the hermeneutic (or, model of interpretation) through which we view our tradition and its ancient texts and scriptures says as much about us as do the texts and traditions themselves.

Karen Armstrong has written that "All the world's religions agree that the one acid test of any theology, any spirituality, is that it leads the faithful to the practice of compassion and to the recognition of the sacred in others." This, then, is the test that the hermeneutic we choose for looking at the Bible must pass-- the test of compassion and inclusivity and the celebration of our human wonderfulness-- the divine within each man, woman, and child (the inherent worth and dignity of each person in our Universalist-Unitarian vision). "A theology that has led to the denigration, exploitation, and oppression of half the human race for so long can not pass this test. If [our religious tradition is] truly to bring enlightenment to the whole of humanity, the problems arising from gender must be urgently addressed." By that same yardstick, much of the Judeo-Christian tradition we have inherited stands under judgment.

It almost goes without saying that our religious tradition's relationship to the movement for justice for women is as a problematic and contradictory one. Here's the shorthand that one scholar identified for the way feminist view the religious tradition of the West:

"The Judeo-Christian tradition is Bad, though Jesus was Good. Paul was Bad, but the Gnostics were Good. Augustine was Very, Very Bad."

That's a caricature, certainly; but like all true caricatures, it's one that contains no small amount of the truth.

The very virulence of the Church's response to women-- the unwavering, vehement misogyny of the early tradition-- would seem to point us toward "something more"-- something deeper, of more lasting significance that this-or-that Church Father's problem with women. There's enough smoke there to set the whole of Western Christianity ablaze. Maybe it's because men in the Church have sensed at some buried level that their oppression and denigration of women have been so wrong and even sinful-- that it has not even come close to passing the acid test of justice and compassion-- that male chauvinism in the Christian tradition (and, to a lesser degree, in the Jewish) has been so violent.

In the third chapter of Galatians, Saint Paul himself (hardly a proto-feminist) wrote that "In Christ Jesus, there is neither male nor female." But it didn't take the "Church Fathers" long to lay aside this equalitarian vision (so close to the "community of equals" that Jesus himself seems to have stood for) and strike a (seemingly) unbridgeable chasm between women and that which is sacred and holy.

In the Christian tradition, women are not just regarded as inferior-- they are seen as downright evil. "Do you not know that you are each an Eve?" the third century church historian Tertullian demanded of the "uppity" women in Carthage. "You are the devil's gateway; you are the first unsealer of that forbidden tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law;... you destroyed so easily God's image, man. Because of you the Son of God had to die."

A few years later, Saint Jerome told his disciples to have nothing to do with women. Not only was marriage disgusting and sinful, Saint Jerome wrote, but women should be relegated to an entirely separate sphere. Priests of the Church should not even minister to women, Jerome said, even if they were sick or otherwise troubled. Women were just "too dangerous" to approach, to deal with. They were there solely to tempt men away from God and toward depravity and evil-- just as Eve did to Adam in the Garden of Eden!

In the fifth century, Saint Augustine of Hippo (often called the "founder of Western Christianity") wrote as length about his love for his mother, and how she was, to a large degree, the one who converted him to the Christian Church. Yet, in (almost) the same breath he wrote to one of his (male, of course) friends: "What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother
it is still Eve the temptress that we must be aware of in any woman."

Over the centuries, things didn't get much better. Thomas Aquinas (usually viewed as a rather "progressive" figure in the history of Western Christianity) wrote that the birth of each woman was a mas occasionatus-- a "missed opportunity"-- for creating a male instead. The "Father of the Protestant Reformation", Martin Luther, was the one who coined the phrase "A woman's place is in the home." Woman, Luther wrote, was to be segregated from public life and relegated to the private sphere-- not because that the way God intended or that society worked best-- but as a punishment for her inherent sinfulness. In his Lectures on Genesis, Luther wrote:

"The rule remains with the husband, and the wife is compelled to obey him by God's command. He rules the home and the state, wages war, defends his possessions, tills the soil, builds, plants, and so on. The woman, on the other hand, is like a nail driven into a wall [how's that for a compassionate and inclusive metaphor?]. She sits at home [where she belongs]... The wife should stay at home and look after the affairs of the household as one who has been deprived of the ability of those affairs that are outside [and beyond her]... In this way, Eve was punished," Luther concludes.

Women are deprived on account of Eve was depraved.

And all women are depraved because Eve was depraved.

That, in a nutshell, is the "traditional" Christian view of the place of women. What misogynist nonsense! From an early stage, Christian men were taught to project their own guilt and sin onto women, who as "daughters of Eve" inherited her sins-- as the first to succumb to Satan and eat the forbidden fruit, and so brought about humanity's expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the entry of sin and evil into the world.

Of course, there were correctives over the centuries as well-- palliatives to make the inherent misogyny of Western religion more palatable, less oppressive, more inclusive.

The importance of the cult of the Virgin Mary within Christianity cannot be overstated, in my opinion. Mary restores to Christianity much of the earthly, feminine, life-giving ethos of which it was stripped by Augustine, Tertullian, and their ilk. To many Christians, Mary restores the feminine face to the act of redemption-- even to the godhead itself. To many, Mary is, in fact, the feminine face of God.

(It's interesting to note that the cult of the Blessed Virgin originally was developed within the Christian church during the twelfth century, when the Crusades were in full swing. It is as though the people of the Church needed the corrective of the "clement, loving, sweet Virgin Mary"-- the palliative of a mother's love-- in the face of all that slaughter and pillage and violence that the Crusades represented. In the darkest night of the Christian tradition, perhaps, the brightest star shone... All over Western Europe, great cathedrals were built (all of them dedicated to Mary)-- as a sort of "counter crusade", demonstrating that the pillage in Jerusalem was not the only (Christian) show in town.

Judaism went even further than Christianity did by introducing a feminine aspect into God itself. In the ancient Jewish mystical tradition, the Kabbalah, there are numerous references to the Shekhinah-- or the divine presence on earth-- which is always pictured as an unmistakably feminine divinity. There are other feminine aspects of the divinity within the Kabbalah as well.

Surprisingly (in the light of many of our contemporary stereotypes), Islam, too, has a better "track record" when it comes to the place of women than does the Christian tradition. Indeed, some of the 99 names attributed to Allah (who is explicitly, "beyond all categories" of male and female) have distinctively female connotations. In the bismallah, the invocation that precedes every recitation of the Koran, the terms used for Allah-- "the compassionate one" (or, al-Rahman), and "the merciful one" (al-Rahim)-- both are related linguistically, to the word for womb. (And you don't get any more feminine than that.) Thus, every time a Muslim hears his or her holy scripture read, there is this explicitly, unmistakably feminine image of the divine.

If only, as Joseph Campbell once mused, Jesus had begun his prayer "Our Mother, who art on heaven..." How different the history of Western spirituality might have been! 

All this shows that religious traditions change and develop over centuries. Our texts may be ancient, but the eyes with which we view them are our own-- so, they have the potential at least to be ever-fresh and ever-new. As one ancient Muslim philosopher taught, "God is reached through the road of the imagination." "In each generation, people have to make an imaginative effort to make their tradition speak to their own unique circumstances."

Our present age is a time of great ferment and change. We seem to straddle two eras, old and new, modern and postmodern. We hope that what will come out of this will be a world of increased justice, equity, and compassion-- with more liberty and freedom for all people. As our circumstance change, so, too, can our view of our religious tradition.

We are sons and daughters of a new age. But we don't have to create our religion, our spirituality, ex nihil-- out of nothing. We have wonderfully rich traditions which can inspire us and enlighten us on our journeys. A healthy plant has to grow from certain roots. In order to be healthy, the new identities we take on as people of faith have to be rooted in the old. There needs to be a life-giving continuity with the past, rather than an ugly and violent severing of the ties that bind. While the search for a more inclusive perspective on our Jewish and Christian tradition has been given new impetus and inspiration by the contemporary feminist movement, it certainly goes back much farther. According to the unimpeachable Oxford English Dictionary, the very first use of the word "sexist" goes back only to 1965 (that's very, very new as far as words go). But certainly, long before that, there was struggle of women for equality and justice-- which often went hand-in-hand with the struggle to free our religious traditions from the heavy hand of patriarchy.

The way we read the Bible, for instance, has been bound up with the larger movement for women's rights almost from the very beginning. In the 1300s, the English mystic Julian of Norwich, whose Revelations of Divine Love is often cited as the first literary work in English to have been written by a woman, acknowledged what she was up against.

In his letter to Timothy, Saint Paul was said to have written: "I permit no woman to teach, or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve."

Julian would not be stilled, however. She would have nothing to do with Paul's dictum. Her Revelations are filled with references to "God, our Mother"-- and even, the "motherhood" of Jesus. Her voice would not be stifled. "Because I am a woman," she asked, "should I therefore believe that I ought not to tell you about the goodness of God?"

A hundred and fifty years later, a German philosopher-physician named Henricius Cornelius Agrippa von Nettersheim published a religious treatise with the rather unlikely title (given most of the tradition) The Glory of Women. Von Nettersheim deduced that, because the trajectory of God's creation in Genesis moves from inferior to superior, the fact that Eve (or, woman) was created after Adam was a badge of honor (and superiority), rather than reproach (and inferiority). Eve was created after Adam, Von Nettersheim wrote, therefore, she was "more highly" prized by God. (And he added, it was Adam, not Eve, who was the "incomplete" part of the human creation-- he was, after all, minus one rib.)

In the seventeenth centuries, the founders of the equalitarian Quaker movement confronted sexist passages in the Bible openly, and rewrote whole parts of their Bibles in what we would call "inclusive language" today.

Around the same time, Judith Singer Sargeant Murray, one of the earliest American woman writers (who later married John Murray, one of the founders of American Universalism) published an essay "On the Equality of the Sexes" (this is, remember, in 1790-- more than 200 years ago). Judith Murray, too, turned her attention to the story of Adam and Eve:

Eve's disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden was often seen as the prime example of woman's inferiority and sinfulness, she agreed. But there was another side of the story, and a different way to read this particular scripture, Judith Murray said. Eve's behavior was motivated, after all, by the quest for understanding: "It does not appear that she was governed by any one sensual appetite," she wrote, "but merely a desire of adorning her mind; a laudable ambition fired her soul, and a thirst for knowledge impelled the predilection so fatal in its consequences."

It is, after all, Eve who is the mover and shaker in the story of the Garden of Eden: Eve who takes the initiative; who uses the gifts God has given her; who moves forward; tries new things; seeks to pull her race forward to a new stage-- even though, in the end, it cost her dearly. Adam, on the other hand, is pretty much a wet noodle. (Those are my words, by the way, not Judith Murray's.) He acts out of no self-movement on his own part, but only because Eve tells him to. In the Garden narrative, Judith Sergeant Murray points out, it is Adam (not Eve) who is shown as ignoble. He grovels; makes excuses; points his fingers at everyone else; fails to take responsibility for his actions-- hardly the epitome of the glory of God's good creation.

The task of liberating the Bible from male-centered myopia was taken up vehemently by many of the port-feminists who followed Judith Murray and the women of her generation. And no one approached this cause more vehemently than did Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In 1895, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, already an old woman who had mothered seven children and had dedicated most of her adult life to the cause of women's rights and suffrage published the first of two volumes of the Women's Bible.

Many of her sisters in the early women's movement looked somewhat askance at her efforts in this regard. They didn't want their movement tinged with the brush of sectarianism; they didn't think that politics and religion should be mixed together. But Elizabeth Cady Stanton knew how important religious perspectives were in determining how Americans looked at the world-- including the world of society and politics. She knew that ancient myths and fables equating Eve with Evil and demanding that "women be silent in the churches" and that women's efforts be restricted to the home had to be countered if women ever were truly to be free and equal citizens.

The Women's Bible was an attempt to meet these destructive myths head on. Mrs. Stanton's methodology was to comb through the Bible, passage by passage, and ask how these words related to women in their own time. Did a certain passage-- for instance, Eve's disobedience in the third chapter of Genesis-- really mean what it has been said to mean by generations of exclusively male interpreters? Was it possible to see the passage in another light, to find other truth there? Were there parts of the Bible which ought to be jettisoned entirely, Mrs. Stanton and her collaborators wondered-- jettisoned because they were out of date, irrelevant, even hurtful to women in a very different time and place?

As might be imagined, such open questioning of Scripture led to a stern rebuke from the religious establishment of the time, which saw the Bible as unassailable and any attempt to question it as sheer blasphemy. "The clergy denounced [the Women's Bible] as the work of Satan," Mrs. Stanton wrote later "though it was really the work of Ellen Batelle Detrick, Lillie Devereux Blake, Rev. Phebe A. Hanaford, Clara Bewick Colby, Ursula N. Gestefeld, Louisa Southworth, Frances Ellen Burr, and myself."

But writing as a real woman in the real world, Elizabeth Cady Stanton shed the light of real life and common sense upon the ancient texts, and their almost entirely male authors and interpreters. Of the construction of Noah's ark, she wrote:

"The paucity of light and air in the ancient vessel shows that women had no part in its architecture, or a series of port-holes would have been deemed indispensable."

Of the episode in Exodus in which the men of Israel melt down the women's jewelry to create their idolatrous golden bull, she wrote:

"It was just so in the American Revolution, in 1776, the first delicacy the men threw overboard in Boston harbor was the tea, women's favorites beverage. The tobacco and whiskey, though heavily taxed [as well], they clung to with the tenacity of the devil-fish."

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was nearly 80 years old when she wrote those words. She is living testimony to the basic fact that age isn't primarily about years. It's about attitude. And such are the ever-fresh, ever-new, ever-young eyes we need as we look back at ancient scriptures.

May we, too, like our mythological foremother Eve, never be satisfied with the status quo, with the same old/same old. May we-- like the heroic foremothers we celebrate in the Women's History Month-- ever stretch our minds to know; ever stretch our arms to reach out to help one another; ever stretch our imaginations to discover a better and more compassionate way of being. May we, like them, come to know that sometimes, the well-worn path keeps us running in circles, and that sometimes, we have to leave the garden for a new world which is always beckoning to us to be born.


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