February 02, 2009

Women and Sacred Texts

On Thursday, I'll give a talk at Panorama City on Women and Religious History.  This is about how women have been viewed throughout the history of religion rather than about particular women in the various traditions.  I owe gratitude to Serinity Young for her text SACRED TEXTS BY AND ABOUT WOMEN, a 1999 anthology that compiles and articulates women's contribution to sacred literature, such as we have it.  I used her text when I taught a course by this name in the classroom.  Most history has focused on the religious activities of men which is not representative of all human experience.  Recent research by women scholars attempts to unveil, as it were, the presence of women in the development of religious practice and traditions.

As a former higher education teacher of world religions, I have to say that it's a rarified moment to find any text book in world religions that mentions women at all and how they are viewed within the traditions.  Checking an index in a text on the history of the world's religions for instance, I see brief token mentions of attitudes toward women.  In a 650 page text, a token 8 column inches is devoted to the matter of feminist theology.  The feminist movement is one of the most important in world history for it continues to seek ways to address oppression against more than half of the world's population.  Further, the feminist movement liberated us to be able to ask important questions about our society in the 20th century that we had heretofore been afraid to ask and address.  

I can't speak about women and the world's religions without some discussion of patriarchy.  Allen Johnson writes in THE GENDER KNOT, "A society is patriarchal to the degree that it is male-dominated, male-identified, and male-centered.  It also involves as one of its key aspects the oppression of women.  Patriarchy is male-dominated in that positions of authority - political, economic, legal, religious, educational, military, domestic - are generally reserved for men....Male dominance also promotes the idea that men are superior to women."  It amuses me when some young whippersnapper in the classroom tries to demonstrate his Bible expertise to show male superiority in Genesis saying that since God created women second, women therefore must be inferior to men.  I point out that if it were just a matter of order, then animals would be superior to men since God created animals first and not men.  That quiets them for only a moment, for the social milieu in which we live perpetuates the dynamic of superiority, and it takes continued effort to address the oppressive system in which we live.  As African-Americans will quickly point out, we aren't beyond racism just because we have a Black president.  Oppression in any shape or form must be contended with, again and again by every generation.

So today, we can look into our own lives and ask in what ways patriarchy persists in our daily lives.  How do we contribute to it?  Can we dare to speak to something that we feel is not balanced?  Can we find the capacity to make a crack in the entrenched, habitual patterns we find ourselves in?  Make a humble start by just looking.