Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Parking, God, and Gender

Sitting in my car with the driver’s side window rolled down, I put the seat back and relax on my lunch hour at work. It’s hot inside the car, but there is a cool breeze blowing outside. I’m too tired to go for a walk, as I only had three hours of sleep the night before. Looking in my rearview mirror, I see that a campus public safety officer is ticketing illegally parked vehicles in the lot. Most of the vehicles are illegally parked. The lot is a faculty/staff only lot, but students have no qualms about parking here.

As I sit there trying to rest a bit, all I can hear is the frantic running of students who realize they’re about to get a ticket. Many try to talk their way out of it. I hear one young woman say angrily, “I left my phone number on the windshield so you wouldn’t give me a ticket! You could have called me!” I didn’t hear the officer’s response, but that was probably the most audacious excuse yet. I’m partially irritated by the sounds of student whining, but I’m also partially amused. I have no sympathy for these students, as their illegal parking is one of my pet peeves. Our campus is small, they’re all young and healthy, and it’s a beautiful day outside. You would think they could walk a quarter of a mile from the student common lot. But no. They have to drive everywhere, and are incapable of walking any distance outside. If they went to any other school in this area, they wouldn’t even be able to park within a mile of the library. I work at other universities, and even as faculty I can’t park close to the library, or even to my classroom. And never mind that we have staff in our building who have difficulty walking and various other major health issues. When they have to walk long distances from another parking lot because they go to lunch and can’t get a parking spot later because of healthy students, it really burns me up.

If you think I am starting to sound like an old curmudgeon who complains about kids being too soft because I had to walk to school uphill both ways in ten feet of snow, you are right. One day I will make an excellent crabby old lady, yelling at kids to get off my lawn, shaking a cane at them threateningly. And I will live a long life as a result. Or so I’m told.

Back in my office, I make myself a cup of instant coffee, that General Foods International crap that makes me happy for some reason. I stir the contents of the cup with a ballpoint pen, and find myself thinking about the idea of God and gender as I am getting back to work. This is not as random as it seems; last night I attended a panel discussion at one of the universities I work at on this topic. Naturally the panelists were looking at a monotheistic view of God. From the Jewish perspective, Dr. Michael Kogan suggested that God is given a male descriptive pronoun because men held the power in that culture, and God made his covenant with men. When the question was asked about what this meant for Jewish women, he replied that it gave them freedom. Men were bound by the rules; women could circumvent them. And ultimately, in the Old Testament, the critical decisions are made by women. Dr. Kogan also passed around a copy of an image of the Qabalistic Tree of Life, with its ten sefirot. He notes that each sefirot denotes a quality that emanates from the Ein Sof (“No-thing-ness”, or “Limitless”), and there is a balance of male and female divine qualities in each of the sefirot as they progress towards Malkuth (Kingdom, or Shekinah), which is the divine essence in the world. He mentioned the Creation story, and suggests that the Bible actually has 5 creation stories. The Genesis I creation story is different from the Adam and Eve creation story—the latter was written about 300 years after the first. He mentions the appearance of Hokmah (Wisdom) in Proverbs 8:22—this is yet another creation story, involving a divine feminine companion to God.

Dr. Stephen Johnson spoke about the Christian view of God, and could find fewer New Testament examples of the feminine describing God. He mentions another of the creation stories, this time in the New Testament, in the Gospel of John. John starts with “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God...”, and Dr. Johnson notes that the structure of this long verse mirrors the structure of the creation story in Proverbs 8:22. The difference is that instead of there being a feminine Divine Wisdom, there is now the masculine Greek Logos (Word). Since the gender of Greek terms is very deliberate, it is clear that this choice of word is deliberate. Over time, Christian thinking subsumed the Aristotelian idea of Spirit and Matter as separate, one being higher than the other—and conceived as Spirit as masculine and Matter as feminine. Since matter was temporal and subject to decay, it was considered weaker. I think of Tertullian’s injunction against sin in a letter to his wife, saying that “though the flesh is weak, the spirit is strong,” hence Christians should have a strong spirit and not sin, ever. From this idea you get the notion of woman as weaker. Tertullian goes as far as to blame Eve for causing Adam to sin, with Satan going after her because clearly she was the weaker of the two and he wouldn’t dare touch the man.

Incidentally, I happen to be working on a psychological history of Tertullian. For those who have wondered why, you should wonder no more. He was certifiably in need of a long vacation or some serious drugs. You have to wonder how someone gets like that. I also thought about the Gnostics, who were vilified for championing Spirit over Matter. Sounds like that idea didn’t exactly go away.

Dr. Cynthia Eller gave a feminist critique of the whole shebang, noting that there are two things we “want” from God—a mysterious all-powerful force, and a shoulder to cry on when we are suffering. One doesn’t need gender for the first, but it’s helpful for the second. She surveyed a number of people about their “image” of God, and they were overwhelmingly masculine conceptions. She suggests that using the male pronoun “He” for God does have a powerful effect on our psychological symbols for God—if we identify God as male, then men somehow assume a divinity that is absent in women, even though that is clearly not the intent of the image. She suggested the experiment of calling God “She” for awhile, and found that those who did it said it “didn’t seem powerful enough.”

I don’t know. My own preferred image of “God” is the Goddess Kali. Not a Western conception, of course. But certainly powerful. In the end, all images fall short, and are merely mental conveniences. You can’t ever “know” anything about what we call “God”, personal or impersonal.

Speaking of, Dr. Kogan came up with my new favorite word to describe Biblical literalism: Scripturdolatry. Use it in a sentence today.

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