A Bumbling, Stumbling Attempt at a Theology of Gender.

Lots of smart people have said lots of smart things about the ways in which our views of ourselves mirror our views on God.  I am thinking, today, about gender.

My own developing views about God’s gender are not that different from my view of gender in people.  I think I am not alone in this.  And also, I am still figuring it all out.  As I try to explain where I am at, and where I am headed, I am sure I am going to say things in a way that might be offensive or incorrect.  I hope that you, reader, can chalk this up to ignorance on my part, and not malice.  I would very much appreciate corrections, suggestions, and counterpoints in the comments below.

The most literalistic readings of scripture within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, are that God is male.  So is the first person he makes.  Femaleness comes next.  It is the single alternative to maleness, a revision on that basic theme.

This parallels the world view I grew up in about gender in general.  Maleness is better.  Femaleness is the alternative.  I am trying to stay away from using the words ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ because it seems like part of the whole idea was that our physical bodies always mirrored how we identified within.

And this was one of the first ironies I noticed in this whole affair, as I tried to work it out for myself.  The Christian world normally wanted to proclaim the existence of a soul, and the idea that there is more than just materialistic existence.  The non-Christian/secular world was generally more reductionistic-materialistic.  Yet suddenly, the Christians were saying, “No, the physical aspects of the body is all that there is.  If you have a penis you are fully and totally male.  If you have a vagina you are female.  All the way through.”  Meanwhile, the secular world was proclaiming that their is this non-material part of us, that might identify in a way that is not consistent with our biology.

This irony was only the first thing for me.  I think what happened next was the recognition that I and so many others had, as we began to recognize that literalistic understandings fall apart pretty quickly.  God, is of course, not physically male.  God is not embodied.

People can try and suggest that it is not about the physical.  They can try and suggest that there are differences in personality between men and women.  But here we return to the irony listed above.  Because now, the question to be answered becomes, “Well, what happens when that personality doesn’t match up with the biology of a person?”

Just as the first thoughts might seem pretty simple, “God is male.”  The first pages of the bible seem pretty straight forward to.  Because at first, as suggested above, God seems to make Adam first, in his image, and then Eve from Adam’s rib.  But a couple pages in, there is a director’s cut on the creation account.  And it seems that both Adam and Eve are made in God’s image.   God, it seems, has a feminine side.

Countless images in the bible build this case, comparing the creator to all manner of feminine images.  And this only stands to reason.  He is able to be everything good, all at once.   It seems like most people, most of the time, want to find themselves somewhere along the spectrum between 100% masculine and 100% feminine.  Some people move to different places over time.   But maybe this is the fundamental difference between God and humans.  God is everywhere on that spectrum at once.  Us little people, we, at any given time, are only occupying one little spot.

 

Glory. Fall. Restoration. Repeat.

You. You are terrible. No good. Worthless. But hey, I can make everything perfect for you.
Does that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside? Yeah. I kind-of thought it wouldn’t. Sadly, if you had to boil down the “good” news of my faith, it would seem like it would end up being something incredibly close to those words.
I don’t think this is the product of malice. Rather, it’s about skipping some steps.
We are operate as though the story begins in suckiness and ends in victory. Part of the reason that this is a tempting picture to buy into is that they are both steps in a process that repeats itself in all kinds of ways. But the thing is this: they are not the only steps.
Turning the process into a 2 step thing robs the picture of context. As a result, it is distorted.
I think what happens can be accurately boiled down to 4 steps. The 4 steps are Glory, Fall, Restoration, and Repetition. If you thought that only fall and restoration happened, you might want to rename them. You could fairly call them suckiness and victory, if you thought that they were the only steps in the process.
Perhaps you are asking “What process?” or simply, “Jeff, what in the crap are you talking about?” I am going to answer those questions by blessing you with an ear worm.
Let it Go.
You know, the song from Frozen? It was endlessly on tween lips not all that long ago. I am going to bet that it is bouncing around the inside of your skull now, as you read this. You are welcome.
Anyway, there is a great line in that song. No, I am not thinking about the endlessly repeated refrain/title. I risk my credibility as a poet when I tell you that I actually kind of love this turn of phrase, but anyway, there is a line: “My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around.”
In honesty, a part of the reason I love this line is probably a bit of snobiness. I am pretty sure that 95% of the people who sing this song have absolutely no idea what this word phrase means.
(Bare with me here, I promise I will be back to the main idea.)
A somewhat simplified explanation of what the term ‘fractal’ means is that it is an image that repeats at all sorts of different levels. Whatever the recurring picture is, you see it in tiny and huge ways… the larger images is might up of the smaller ones, but even the smaller ones are just tiny versions of the larger image.pfractal_star_04
I suspect the line in the song refers to the idea that a huge mound of snow looks like a tiny piece of snow, and further, that if you look at a single image of a snow flake you see little icecicle-like structures. If it turns out that I have this wrong, the basic thing I want to grab on to is the idea of a fractal.
The idea of a fractal is important. Because (thanks for your patience. Back to the main idea, now.) the 4-part pattern: Glory, fall, restoration, repeat… this is a fractal.
Once I would have called a motif. But a motif implies that there are a series of stories, all on the same level, that incorporate this idea. It’s more accurate to call this a fractal because it occurs on all kinds of scales.
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Over and over, it occurs as an anecdote, a short(ish) story. Consider the beginning of humanity: Adam and Eve are born in glory. They are built from God’s image, they walk on God’s garden. They fall from this place of communion with God. But God does not leave. There is a part of that image and relationship that is rebuilt within their own lives. God takes care of them, even outside the garden. Their is a restoration. Unfortunately, the whole thing is repeated, though. Cain had the possibility of walking this close with God. In a fit of jealousy he murders Able, falling…
Another anecdote: David, in glory, is called by God to lead Isreal. He falls various times, perhaps most notably as he commits adultery. But he repents, restoring this relationship.
Sometimes, this occurs on the level of entire book(s) of the bible, not just a handful of chapters. Joseph experiences a kind-of glory. He rises to the second most powerful position in Egypt, the most powerful country in the world. He creates a family reunion and helps his brothers to see the errors of his ways. But Joseph, and his brothers, their descendents fall into slavery. And Moses leads the hundreds of thousands of them out of Egypt. They are headed for a restoration in the land promised to them.
This occurs on an inter-book level, too. Consider the whole of what we Christians refer to as the New Testament. The glory of the chosen land has fallen away. The land promised to Moses’ people has become occupied. The people chosen as God’s special people have waited for saviors promised to them, and it had to feel as though this waiting was all in vain.
Those people promised turn out to be one person. He comes and sets them free in a manner much more important and fundamental than politics, geography, and ritual.
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This level is similar to the largest way that the bible can be seen. But there is a subtle difference. The whole bible, not just several books or a whole testament also fits this pattern. Because Adam and Eve did not find a restoration that was equal to what God had lost.
That restoration only came about through Jesus. And this is where scripture breaks from the fractal. Because all the ways that restorations lead to glory, and all the ways that glories lead to falls… They break, here, at the end. The restoration is forever, the record finally stops skipping. We move into the destiny we had been intended for, way back in the garden.
When I began writing this, I alluded to the idea that this view has some important impacts on how we view humanity and how we express the good news of Jesus birth, death, and resseruction. I find that I have rambled longer than I intended, though, so I am going to leave that for next time.

I’m going Ho-o-ome

We were talking last night about the Isrealites return from exile. Afterwards, I got to thinking about how this pattern runs through the whole bible on so many different levels. A people are home. They are cast out. They return.
On the largest level possible, that’s the story scripture tells: Adam and Eve were home. They were cast out. Through the entire old and new testament humanity tries to return. And in Revelations, at the end of the bible, humanity does.
The story occurs on hundreds of smaller levels, too. Over and over again, people are called out to new homes, or to reclaim old ones. Through out the old testament, this plays out in a georgraphical way: the homes are physically somewhere else. Right up until the time that Jesus is born, Joseph and Mary are traveling because they have been required to return to their ancestral home to be counted. I find myself if this mini-exodus the law required felt like a mockery of what was supposed to happen. Yes, they traveled to where there ancestors had lived, but it was not to return to greatness. It was merely to be counted, checked off, accounted for. (I think the book of Numbers actually told them to avoid these sorts of things, but I don’t know that they had much choice.)
With Jesus, the whole thing gets turned sideways. (Seems like you can say that about hundreds of things.) Now, it’s not about going to the right place anymore. The Kingddom of Heaven is already here, right where we are, just out of reach. Like one of those optical illusions that you stare and stare and stare at, and suddenly everything falls into place.
There is a problem with that last metaphor. Because it required more than just looking at things in the right way. It required working with Jesus, or submitting to Jesus in some way, so that we recognized that we were already home.
Cheers - The Final Season DVD
In Jesus we get this idea that we could call a Theology of Cheers. (Yes, I’m referring to the 80’s TV show. Bear with me.) Cheers was a place where everybody knew your name. That was the point of the place. It wasn’t about the specific location. It was about the people at the location. That is what made the place home. It was about community. And also dumb jokes.
The ridiculous, occasionally offensive, cult classic “Rocky Horror Picture Show” has exactly one moment that I would call poignant. Near the end, the “villain” has been exposed by a spy in his midst. His entire mission is declared a failure. He is to be taken in, disgrace, to the planet he came from. And amidst all the sexual provocation, amidst the cheesy sci-fi ray guns, amidst the gender-bending, there is this song. This poignant, plaintive, hopeful song. The refrain: “I’m going home.” After all the decadence, the plans, delusions of grandeur, he grabs victory from defeat and is filled with hope at the idea of going home.
Home. Such a powerful thing. And not because of where it is. It is because what it is. We are wired this way.
And in the end, it is so not so different from the film. Despite our offenses, provacations, decadence, delusions of grandeur, we too can be taken home…

Inspired, except for those times when it’s not inspired.

I believe that God had a role in the creation of the bible.  People often use the word “inspired” to describe this idea.  Perhaps, because we have a neat and tidy word, we think we believe roughly the same thing as all the other people who use that word.  More than this, we seem to believe that we have a somewhat clear idea of just what this word means.

The more I think on it, the less I know.  It’s a much more complica

English: folio 150 recto of the codex, with th...
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ted issue than it first appears.  One thing I can say: God didn’t do the good-guy version of posession.  Something of the writers’ personalities shine through the various books in the bible.  For example, we get a snap shot in the differences in temperment when we read Mark’s Gospel and compare it with John’s.

A second thing I’m pretty sure about: things that have happened since the bible came down do not enjoy the same special status as the original pronouncements.  One of the reasons I’m pretty confident on this is that the section headings weren’t in the original.  And quite frequently, they appear to me to be manipulating the meaning of God’s word in a manner inconsistent with the overall thrust of scripture. 

Now, is the thing I really wanted to write about.  I noticed something kind-of interesting as I was reading through first Corinthians chapter 7.  Paul says the following at various points in the chapter, ” I am saying this more as a matter of permission and concession, not as a command or regulation.”  … “But to the married people I give charrge– not I but the lord.”  and “To the rest I declare– I not the lord”  “Now concerning the virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion and advice as one who by the Lord’s mercy has been rendered trustworthy”  and “But in my opinion a widow is happier”.

The reason I find these to be such interesting statements is that they imply to varying degrees that Paul is sometimes speaking in some-sort of official capacity, and other times he is more or less off the record.  As some people use the word “inspired” it would seem that Paul is saying that he wasn’t divinely inspired to say some of those things; he was simply offering his own opinion.

So… The whole bible is inspired… except for those few rare sentences?  Maybe there are more sentences like these.  (I’d love to hear them, by the way, if you know ’em) But regardless, these “uninspired” statements are still a huge minority.  Are we meant to take them less seriously than the rest of scripture?

I’ve got some more to say on the topic… But I think I want to let that percolate a couple days before I get there.

Putting Ourselves Away

Jerry Mathers and Paul Sullivan
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 On the day that God was telling me some things I did not really want to hear, I could have said  to God: No thank you. I won’t hear what you’re saying to me today. I am going to take your words, and I am going to twist them into what I want them to say, instead.  I could have probably talked myself into just feeling good and loved by God as I sat there, by the river.

If I had done that, I could have easily clung to the delusion that I was listening to God.  I could have bragged about how I’d meditated over that scripture and I took it as a promise that God was going to give me a new job.  In doing all this, all though my words would have claimed I was doing this on the bible’s authority, it really would have been a denial of biblical authority.

After denying biblical authority over our own selves, we often go on to try and use it to wield authority over others. We try to use scripture like a club. We see the bible as instrument of force. We wield it in a way that forces others to do our bidding, that beats them into submission.

We judge people and categorize people inside our churches and outside of them.   We elevate our human interpretations to the status of God’s pronouncements.  In short, we  pervert the bible.  We can use it to wield the sort-of authority that we see the world using.

But the thing about the world’s way of authority is that all it ever does is calls us to compliance.   It calls us to avoid punishment, it calls us to create endless lists of ‘do’s and ‘do-nots’.  The world’s kind-of authority does not challenge us to excel, to seek deeply after things. 

I don’t think our only motivation is in an unhealthy desire to  control people.  I can see how reassuring it would be, to look at things in such a black-and-white manner, to act as though the bible gave us rules instead of stories, to speak as though we have attained a final, complete, and unassailable understanding.  If we’re not using Christianity as a way to control people, sometimes, at the bare minimum we treat complexity and challenges as if they were Christianity’s dirty little secret, the elephant in the room.

CS Lewis says this about the complexity of understanding The Bible, “We may think we should have preferred an unrefracted light giving us ultimate truth in systematic form – something we could have tabulated and memorised and relied on like the multiplication table.”

But scripture is not always systematic  and tabulated. It is so much more than a simple set of rules.  There are instructions in the bible that seem to contradict each other. The core of Jesus teaching is in parable, stories whose meaning was even struggled with by the apostles themselves. And almost every day, I find in the bible instructions that just don’t connect to what I experience in the world.

These frustrations and challenges are great things. They pull all of us into the grand story of scripture. They cause us to experience these stories with all of ourselves. It is an example of the way God wields authority: not just over us, not just at us, or to us. God uses authority in a way that pulls us into the equation. It becomes an experience that happens with us, when we are challenged to wrestle with meaning, to apply principles for ourselves.

God doesn’t want to speak at us.  He wants to dance with us.  He wants to interact and engage us.  The idea of a God who wants to interact with us seems like a great segue as we  move back into a time or worship with him.

 _________________________

Don’t mishear me. I’m not denying objective truth.   I’m not saying that we should compromise everything.  I’m not suggesting that we ought to fixate on only the difficult parts. 

For all it’s frustration, I love the bible.  But I think it’s really important to be honest and clear about why we love the bible, what is so compelling about it.

Part of the greatness, the authority of scripture, is not in spite of the challenging things, the apparently inconsistent things, the things that are so unlike the world. The authority of scripture is because of those things.

Before I knew Jesus there were all these Christians with there pat answers and simplified explanations. I thought maybe their lives were a permanent episode of “Leave it to Beaver.” The faith they were trying to convince me of did not speak to the world I was living in.

What I know now is that God engaged in this great act of love and respect for humanity’s mind and imagination. He wrote something that would challenge and even frustrate us.  He wrote something that asks if we would like to submit to it.

And God gives us a roadmap for responding to this. Scripture itself provides a really important blue print in the second chapter of Philipians. In this portion of the letter, Paul shares with us some important insights into how God uses authority and what his expectations are for us around seeking out the truth.

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature
[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Do Everything Without Grumbling

12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

 

There is a metaphor in here for the true authority of the scriptures.

Just as Jesus did not use his equality with God, his authority, as something to be used to his own advantage, so to, the scriptures do not use authority to their own advantage.

By any reasonable way of thinking about it, God has the right to order us around, to compell us to do things, to wield his authority the same way that the world does.  We might expect the bible to be nothing but orders and expectations.   Orders and expectations are in there, but it’s not what the bible primarily is.   The bible is God’s love letter to us.

 

In calling us rather than compelling us, the bible makes itself a servant to us.  Are we prepared to make ourselves like a servant to it?    It’s so easy and natural for us to come with our ideas, to carry our interpretations as though they are in the bible itself.  The middle portion of these verses challenges us to follow the example of Jesus and  make ourselves nothing.  When we put all of our own selves away, that’s where and when we’ll find the truth that dwells within scripture.

God, the tree-hugger

Druid
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Suppose you were reading a book.  Early on, a character happens across a muder scene.  This character– who is perhaps a detective– states that the ground itself is crying out. 

 About halfway through that book, some other hero– perhaps that rare ethical politician–  has been speaking to people to people about their lousy decisions.  Part way through his speech to the people, the politician speaks to the land itself.  He tells the land it has been mistreated.  He paints a word picture of how amazing it will be for the land when people start acting right.

Then, near the end of the book, somebody else is talking about how messed up everything is.  This character says that it runs deeper than just people wanting healing.  Suppose this guy went so far as to say the universe itself is crying out to be restored.

I think many people would begin a rant that would go something like this, “Those evil leftist neopagans are pushing foreward their pro-environment agenda, trying to turn everyone to their new age philosophy which suggests that the earth itself is divine.”

Maybe you saw through my little mental exercise and recognized that the book described above is the bible.  When Cain slays Abel, God describes how the Earth is crying out with his blood.  Three quarters of the way through Ezekial, the prophet switches gears.  He is no longer rebuking the people of Isreal.  He appears to be talking to the land itself.  And in the New Testament, Paul tells us that creation itself is groaning in anticipation of Christ’s return.  (These, by the way, are not isolated examples.)

I am not suggesting that we ought to go out and actively worship the trees themselves.  I am not denying that people smuggle their metaphysics into what they say and do and think.  (Sometimes on purpose.)

I am saying that God is an environmentalist and the issue of where nature ends and God begins is a complicated one.

God breathed.

Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam (1512) is ...
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Genesis describes God breathing life into Adam.  Much later in the bible, in the book of Timothy, scripture is described in a way that is usually translated as inspired.

But the actual words used are ones which literally mean God-breathed.

We do an awful lot with our belief that scripture is divinely inspired.  I’m not denying that it is.

But I wonder if we were meant to go in these directions.  I wonder, instead, if the idea in Timothy wasn’t to evoke a paralell with the book of Genesis.  God breathed life into us.  Then he breathed life into words.  And those words would eventually be collected into the bible.

In the same sense that human kind is set apart from the rest of creation, so too are the books of the bible.  The breath that God breathed in gives an inherent value, a preciousness.