Religion is a man-made construct. Merriam-Webster defines it as “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.” In our quest to understand the nature of the universe and our place in it, we turn to others who are like-minded, decide together what we believe, and find strength and community among kindred spirits.
Faith and spirituality spring from within the human soul. In our quest to connect with the unseen Spirit that inhabits us all, we cling to what we believe. Sometimes, in our worst moments, we attack the validity of the beliefs of those who see God through a different human lens. And even in our best moments we are often confused by why anyone would believe what others believe.
Today’s post is the second in a series that will explore what I think people misunderstand about the religion I’ve chosen to help me understand my own spirituality, my own place in the universe. I don’t pretend to be a theologian. These posts will simply offer my own thoughts and my own understanding as I’ve come to see God through Christianity—and, in particular, through Presbyterianism.
I invite you to respond—to help me understand what I might not about your own religious community and practices.
Part Two: “How can you support a religion that oppresses women?”
If it weren’t asked so seriously, this question would amuse me. If I supported only those human institutions that began with equality between men and women in mind, I wouldn’t support a single institution that society has to offer.
We try our best to find our way out of the morass of patriarchy we’ve created. Progressive theologians have tried their best to remove some of the masculine language from our holy texts, and our pastors review their sermons to correct their unconscious use of gender-biased language. But the English language doesn’t even have a gender-neutral pronoun for the singular. “They” can refer to either male or female, but “it” hardly seems appropriate for gender of the human variety.
In fact, about a week after I wrote the first of these blogs, I heard a pastor read it aloud to a group of teenagers. He stumbled over my first sentence: “Religion is a man-made construct.” And then he read it again, replacing “man-made” with “human-made.” Until that moment, I wasn’t even aware that I’d used gender-biased language.
So how can I, as a woman—and the very term woman seems to carry its own heavy weight—practice a religion that oppresses women? That seems to me to suggest that if I’m truly a feminist, I can’t participate in society at all. And so the morass deepens. I don’t participate. I am irrelevant.
Those who have rejected faith in God are usually the ones asking today’s question. Oppression is just one more reason to give up on a human construct that seems to them more myth than miracle. But I can’t give up on them without addressing what I think is certainly a fair question. Though I don’t subscribe to their worldview, I believe that atheists are among the most marginalized people among us—certainly more oppressed in our society than women are these days. Even those who never give God more than a passing thought on most days feel free to bash atheists for their lack of belief.
So how do I answer such a question? Like most things involving faith, my response involves more instinct than intelligence, more love than logic. I tend to distinguish between my religion—Christianity—and my faith. Christianity is a human-made construct—with concrete beliefs, ceremonies, and rules that were first established by men. My faith has none of that concreteness, but in many ways it has far more substance.
While I appreciate the Apostle Paul tremendously for ensuring that I would hear about Christ more than 2000 years after he lived, Paul is not the follower of Christ for whom I feel the most affinity. He was, after all, the one who said that women should be silent in church and wait until they get home to ask their husbands about anything they desire to know (I Corinthians 14: 34-35). Though we have few of their ideas in writing, I find the humanness of Peter and Thomas far more appealing. To question Christ, to deny Christ, to press on in spite of their failings—these are the humans who speak to me.
And where are the women in all this? It’s certainly a fair question. To understand what it means to be a woman in my religion, I look to the life of Christ—to the words and actions of the human who most seems to speak to my heart of the nebulous and unfathomable God I worship.
Christ performed his first miracle at the behest of a woman. His first response when his mother tells him the wine has run out at the wedding strikes me as a little snarky: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” I smile at her response. “Do whatever he tells you,” she says to the servants. This suggests that her experience with him tells her that in spite of his words, he hears her and honors her.
His last human act? Again, he thinks about his mother. He looks down from a cross in the greatest pain of his life and tells “the disciple whom he loved” to take care of his mother.
And every act in between? Jesus allows a woman to wash his feet. Subservient? Yes. But he washes his disciples’ feet as he prepares to leave them, and he speaks to them, not for the first time, about serving one another.
Though he speaks against adultery and divorce, he shows only kindness to the woman at the well, a woman his disciples are surprised—and probably even a little disapproving—that he even speaks to.
There’s also the woman who begs him to heal her tormented daughter. At first he ignores her, and the disciples want to send her away. But when she reasons with him that even dogs get the crumbs from under the table, he stops to listen, something no one around him is willing to do. And he grants her request.
According to all four Gospels, Jesus chose to reveal himself after his crucifixion to women. Why is that? Why not reveal himself to some of his disciples? Or even to Paul, who hasn’t come into the story yet? Assuming that he could have done anything he wanted as the Son of God, I tilt my head in thought every time I read those resurrection stories. I smile. God-with-us, Jesus, the fully human and fully divine, chose to sojourn a while with women before he met the men who had the earthly power the women didn’t have—to create the human institution that would carry on the message of his life.
So how can I support a religion that doesn’t treat women as equals? It’s the best religion I’ve got. The ultimate answer is that my faith isn’t the same thing as my religion. My faith is in a just and loving Spirit—neither male nor female, both male and female. And Christianity—my religion—gives me the best human means I know of living out my faith in the world.
What about you?