The Religious Wounding of Women
The western collective confirmation of God as the Father, as male, has held our imaginations hostage. Within this thwarted imagination women are alienated from the Divine realm and forced to look outside of themselves, their bodies and their nature, for salvation and validation. This perception of the Divine has disempowered women in their way of seeing themselves and in their way of being in the world . Patricia Reilly suggests that it is time to name this damaging presumption of God's maleness, and to imagine the Divine as other than the bearded father-figure in the sky.
|By Patricia Reilly|
All of us were wounded in one way or another in childhood. It may have been as a result of the piercing taunts of classmates, the betrayal of our trust by a beloved teacher, humiliation at the hands of our siblings, or the severe criticisms of a parent. There is no way to escape childhood without a scrape or two no matter how loving our family.
Those of us who grew up in dysfunctional families were more seriously injured.
Our awareness of these wounds no matter their intensity comes to us through the troubling and ineffective behaviours we bring into adulthood. These may include troublesome relationships; overeating; chronic debt; or addiction to substances, sex, or work. At some point we realise that these behaviours do not support the quality of life we desire as adults, and we reach out for help to deal with them.
It becomes clear to us after years of therapy appointments, religious services, Twelve Step meetings, or women's support groups that there are extremely deep wounds beneath the behaviours we talk about each week. These injuries do not respond to psychological theory, no matter how skillfully employed by our therapist; or to elaborate theologies, no matter how carefully articulated by our minister; or to the rhetoric of recovery, no matter how informative or interesting the spokesperson. Trying to deal with our ineffective behaviours without acknowledging their roots in the wounds of childhood will always prove fruitless. These behaviours are the voices of our deep injuries. Some injuries require very little attentiongiven time and a basically supportive environment, they heal. There are other wounds, however, that reach deeper and require tender care and special attention.
Although women choose a variety of spiritual paths, our wounds are similar based on our birth into a society that worships a male God and prefers men. Whether the face of our childhood God was comforting or frightening, punitive or kind, the exclusive imagining of God as male has deeply wounded women. Our immersion in these images convinced us that we are excluded from the Divine, that we are inferior to men, that we are in need of a male saviour, and that to name and imagine God in any other way than he has always been known is blasphemy. The religious images of childhood burrowed away in the girl-child's heart and mind. They limited her dreams and the expression of her gifts in the world.
Until this deep wounding is acknowledged and healed, we hope and pray, we make resolutions, we commit to countless diet plans, and we try the advice of one expert after another but our efforts to change bring only momentary relief. Our ineffective behaviours are the indirect way these injuries seek to get our attention. They are our clues to look beneath them. To become entirely ready to have the behaviours transformed is to plunge into the woundedness of our lives.
As a result of our immersion in male names and images of God, we have been excluded from the Divine. God and humankind ("mankind") have been imagined as male. Therefore, men have been considered representative of a full and complete humanity. They are divine and their experience is normative. We are not divine and our experience is considered peripheral. Thus we have been barred from full participation in family, world, and church.
During adolescence I read the biographies of several Christian men in an attempt to discover the common denominator of their greatness. In typically adolescent fashion, I wanted to accomplish great things in God's name. I wanted to be a woman of God. If only I could find their secret. My exploration disappointed me. I was not able to find a detailed prescription for Christian greatness.
Singing the hymn "Rise Up, O Men of God" one Sunday, however, their secret dawned on me: they were men and so was God. Men were called to do great things for God; girls were groomed to be minister's wives. Boys could be God, girls could not.
Sadly, the girl-child of today is as thoroughly convinced that she is other than God and excluded from the Divine as I was in the 1950s. Recently a friend told me of concerned parents in her parish. They were deeply disturbed that their daughter had been chosen to play the part of God in a church-school play. Although she was excited by the prospect, one can only speculate about her parents' thoughts and feelings: Would it be blasphemy for a girl to play God? Would God be angry? Would He rant and rave in the heavens? They had been taught to 'colour' God within the prescribed lines of religion... a certain sex and colour.
These parents probably have noble expectations of this daughter and yet they place severe limits on what she can do and be. Her brother could be God in the school play...she could not. So too her parents could probably imagine their son as a doctor, lawyer, or president. Their aspirations for their daughter are that she marry a powerful and influential man. The image of God that was implanted within us in the early yearswhether shouted at us in fundamentalism or whispered to us in our culturehas a deep impact on our lives as women. It affects our treatment and expectations of our daughters and of ourselves. It does matter what we believe. The girl-child has been excluded from the Divine. Irene N. and Robin K. share their feelings:
Our lives remain on hold as we wait for the Deliverer to come. We long for human saviours: "If only" I had a new husband or partner, a job change, an exciting happening, a new appartement, a knight in shining armour.
As a result of our immersion in male names and images of God, the girl-child becomes convinced that masculine qualities are more valuable than feminine ones. She develops a deep sense of inferiority and will grow up denigrating all things feminine. I asked the young man who is a cashier at my favourite restaurant, "Is God a man or a woman?" Without a moment's hesitation he said, "A man, of course." "How can you be so sure?" I asked. "Well, God is big and strong, and powerful enough to be in control of everything. He couldn't be a girl. They're weak and not as smart as men."
The young woman working with him behind the counter was listening to our exchange and she became outraged. In a moment, she got it....girls are second rate! It didn't matter that she was a cook with expanding possibilities at the restaurant, and he a mere fill-in cashier. He could be Godthis gave him built-in status despite the reality of his inferiority to her. Sadly, her outrage was directed toward the fact that she is a "girl," not toward the assumption that God is male. She didn't question that. Her final comment to me was, "I wish I were a boy."
While studying at Princeton Seminary, I was encouraged to read the book Man Becoming by Gregory Baum, a Catholic theologian (Herder and Herder, 1970). I was struck by this passage: "To believe that God is Father is to become aware of oneself not as stranger, not as an outsider or an alienated person, but as a son who belongs or a person appointed to a marvellous destiny, which he shares with the whole community. To believe that God is Father means to be able to say 'we' in regard to all men."
I put down the book. It was clear that the author, although I am certain he would claim otherwise, was writing to men, about men's experience of God. I rewrote the passage in my journal: In my experience as a woman... To believe that God is only Father is to become aware of myself as stranger, as outsider, as alienated person, as a daughter who does not belong, who is not appointed to the marvellous destiny offered to the sons of the father. To believe that God is only Father says that "I am other" in regard to all men and in regard to the Divine. I am reminded of the three-fold thanksgiving prayer of the rabbis: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a heathen... a bondsman... a woman..." We wonder: the gentile man could become a Jew, and the bondsman could become free, but how do we undo our womanness? This has been the riddle of most women's lives. The use of exclusively male imagery convinces women that they are other than God, and therefore deficient, inferior, and never quite good enough. Listen to Sharyn M. and Joyce R.:
From childhood, women are taught to look outside themselves for legitimacy, direction, and salvation.
As a result of our immersion in male names and images of God and in the images of saviours that linger in our memories from fairy tales and Bible stories, the girl-child becomes convinced of her inability to save herself and of her need of a male saviour. Our lives remain on hold as we wait for the Deliverer to come. We long for human saviours: "If only" I had a new husband or partner, a job change, an exciting happening, a new apartment, a knight in shining armour. And we long for divine saviours: "If only" I had a vision from heaven, a definite word from God through my therapist or gurua miracle. From childhood, women are taught to look outside themselves for legitimacy, direction, and salvation.
We look to men to legitimise us. Historically, a child was considered "illegitimate" unless it bore the name of the father. It is not enough to be born of woman. And once born, we were to be legitimised by a series of men, beginning with our father and later by boyfriends and husbands. The fear of illegitimacy is so deeply embedded within us that even in contemporary relationships in which the woman chooses to keep her name, the children invariably bear the name of the father.
We look outside ourselves for direction. We are taught to defer to men. They are the actors in the drama of our lives. We are the observers and the supporting cast. Joyce explores the ineffective behaviours that result from her deep sense of inferiority, "I am an observer in work situations that involve men. My brain stops functioning around them. My awareness goes out the window and I defer to male logic. I know intellectually that their logic is not superior but I'm not able to push through my strong feelings of inferiority and so l defer."
We look to men for our salvation. Our mothers, whether in healthy or abusive relationships, passed on to us the myth of the necessity of a male saviour in our lives. As a result, some of us stay in abusive relationships because to be without a man is to be "unsaved." A workshop participant acknowledged, "I was taught that men would save me from financial insecurity and the shame of not being 'chosen.' They were to give me companionship and respectability. When I found myself in an abusive relationship, I was unable to leave because that would prove my unworthiness and reinforce my deep inferiority."
Surrendering our lives to a male God, a guru, a boyfriend or husband, a New Age philosophy, or a Higher Power continues our disempowering dependence on powers outside of ourselves to legitimise, direct, and save us. In the process, we become alienated from our own inner resources. Reflect with Joyce, Sharyn, and Susan on the saviours, messiahs, and rescuers you have looked to for legitimacy, direction, and salvation.
It was necessary for most of us to adopt the God of the institutions by which our lives were bound as children and adolescents. It was often too dangerous to rebel, and the fear of abandonment was so strong that it took most of us many years before we were ready to question the God of our early years. Fear comes with good reason. We feel as if we are committing a mortal sin to imagine God as anything or anyone other than God the Father. We were told that there was no need to see God in any other way than the way "he" always had been seen. Frightened, we put aside our original sense of the many colours of the rainbow with which to "colour" God. We joined in the prayers and the imaginings of home, church, and society. Whether the image of God is comforting or frightening, whether his face is kind or punitive, "he" has imprisoned our imaginations.
Years ago, as I sat in a Sunday School class of adults, we listed the words and images we each employed for God in our adolescence. The list was full of diversity, reflecting the variety of people in the class: father, answerer, boundary setter, friend, judge. As I looked at the list I experienced a dual response. On the one hand, I shivered at the thought that God is created from our own need. We create our own Gods! A person needing stability and control created a Father God with those qualities. Some one else full of questions during that turbulent period created a "God Who Answers." On and on, down the list I went, shocked and impressed at our ability to imagine Gods and then to move on to new ones as our needs changed. On the other hand, I realised that our imaginations were free within a very limited arenaevery God on our list was imagined as male. And due to the imprisonment of my imagination, I did not even consider alternatives. The feminine face of God had been off-limits to me.
As a result of the imprisonment of our imaginations, women cannot imagine a God who looks like them. I have asked hundreds of women over the yearsworkshop participants, friends, colleagues, salespersons, and waitresses of all colours, creeds and walks of life"Is God a man or a woman?" The answer was unanimous: "God is male. A woman cannot be God." I then invited them to conjure up an image of God as woman. For most this seemed a ludicrous suggestion based on the effectiveness of their childhood religious training. Others attempted the assignment until the image of an angry male God shouted from the depths of them, "Thou shalt have no Gods before me."
Clearly, our imaginations have been held hostage by God the Father. "He" has been an undisturbed idol for too long. His image has been used to convince us that we are excluded from the Divine, that we are inferior to men, that we are in need of a male saviour, and that to name and imagine God in any other way than he has always been known is blasphemy. A woman's inability to imagine a God who looks, bleeds, feels, thinks, and experiences life as she does is an indication of how deeply she has been injured by her religious past.
A woman's inability to imagine a God who looks, bleeds, feels, thinks, and experiences life as she does is an indication of how deeply she has been injured by her religious past.
Reflect on the memories, thoughts, and reactions that are triggered by these words and phrases. Do you feel excluded by them?
·One Man, One Vote.
·Rise up, O Men of God.
·AII men are created equal.
·The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.
·Congressman, Spokesman, Chairman.
Now reflect on the thoughts and reactions that are triggered by these words and phrases. Is it easier for you to feel the possibility of men's exclusion than to feel the actuality of your own?
·One Woman, One Vote.
·Rise up, O Women of God.
·AII women are created equal.
·The God of Sarah, Rachel, and Leah.
·Congresswoman, Spokeswoman, Chairwoman.
Reflect on the ways that the images and words of the male God limited your dreams and curtailed the expression of your gifts in the world.
Inventory the wounds and ineffective behaviours that were the result of growing up immersed in male names and images of the Divine. Begin by adding to this list of "lf...then..." statements. Invite a group of women friends to expand the inventory with you. Personalise it. These statements explore the connection between our religious injuries and the ineffective behaviours we bring with us into adulthood:
If God is male,
·then men are active participants in life and I am an onlooker.
·then masculine qualities are more valuable than feminine ones.
·then I am incapable of choosing my own direction or path in life without a man's assistance. I wait for men to tell me what's right for me. They have the natural abilities that I lack.
·then men were made in God's imagebody and alland I was not. My body is 'other' and defective. It is never enough. I compulsively eat and then compulsively exercise. My body bears the brunt of my self-hatred. I never saw a God who looks like me...with breasts and the roundness of a woman. The sex goddesses like Marilyn Monroe were created by men and do not look like me at all.
If God is male, then men are Gods and
·I defer to men in work situations. I back down in any argument with a man. I get quiet in mixed groups, allowing men to dominate the discussions.
·I diminish my life and quiet my intelligence so male co-workers, lovers, and even professors won't be threatened by me.
·A relationship with a man is to be highly desired. He becomes a God. His needs are more important than my children's, my friend's, and my own.
·I set aside my own life in order to pursue men and then consider it my duty to meet all of their needssexual, emotional, and physicaljust as my mother dedicated her life to my father's needs. He was the God of our family.
·Men's interests are much more important than mine, and their conversations, careers, and decisions carry more weight than mine. I enlarge my life to learn and grow as a result of their interests. I have learned to like football, to read Sports Illustrated, and to cook their favourite meals. These Gods have seldom shown an interest in an idea, a project, or a curiosity of mine.
·They are superior and I am inferior. I have never had a healthy and mutual relationship with a man. I think it is impossible.
·The men in my life have always been taller, smarter, and wealthier than I. I become dependent due to my inferiority, and eventually I begin to believe that I am incapable of taking care of myself. It seems that the only possible relationship is one in which the man is dominant and I am subordinate.
What saviours were you taught to look to for salvation, legitimacy, and direction? List them for each period of your life. What did you expect them to deliver you from? Were they effective saviours? Were there any women among them?
Who are you turning your life and will over to currently? A boyfriend? A therapist? A guru? A Higher Power? A New Age philosophy? Which response comes to mind when you are faced with a difficult situation? "Who will save me?" or "What resources do I have to face this challenge?"
Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine the divine as feminine. What image rises from your imagination? Draw it or describe it in writing.
What feelings surface as you attempt the assignment?
·Is there fear in the face of an angry male God shouting "Thou shalt have no Gods before me?
·Do you visualise a God who looks like you (with freedom and pride)?
Reflect on this statement: A woman's inability to imagine a God who looks, bleeds, feels, thinks, and experiences life as she does is an indication of how deeply injured she has been by her religious past.
Excerpted from A God Who Looks Like Me (Ballantine, 1995)
Patricia Lynn Reilly is the founder of Open Window Creations, where she conducts workshops and retreats on women's spirituality, recovery, and the healing ministry. She is also co-editor of The Circle of Life Women's Centre. Patricia holds a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, and post-graduate certification from the Women's Theological Centre on Women's Spiritual and Feminist Theology. She lives in Berkeley, California.