Monday, May 15, 2017

God Is Not My Father

I remember the first time I heard a priest refer to God as Mother from the pulpit.

I was in grad school, and was attending a special visit-day Mass with most of the theology school.  During his homily, the priest very casually switched out "Father" and used "Mother" when talking about God.  He didn't point it out.  Didn't say "look at this cool thing I'm doing."  He just did it, right there, in front of a Church full of theology students and prospective students, as if it were the most natural, normal thing in the world.

It blew my freaking mind.

I had, of course, heard people refer to God as Mother many times before this.  It wasn't a new concept to me.  I'd attended a non-Catholic undergrad, studied Feminist Theology in various forms, and explored the power of liturgical language over and over again.  Yet, I'd never ever heard a priest call God "Mother" in a formal Mass setting.  He knew what he was doing.  His casualness was intentional, meant to shake us up and make us think.  And for me at least, it worked.

Fast forward a few years, and another priest lectures me about why I should always refer to God as Father in the liturgical setting.  During a reading, I'd intentionally used non-gendered words to describe God in place of the gendered ones because I was no longer able to view God in that singular way.  According to this particular priest, however, I shouldn't do that because it somehow disturbs the community.  It's all well and good if I think that for myself, but I need to fall in line with everyone else.  Don't question, don't challenge, just do what I'm told.

I'm not very good as doing what I'm told when I don't think it's right.

Here's my issue with referring to God strictly as "Father".  It's so constrictive.  It limits my understanding of God and puts God into a tiny little box that defines how I always and forever view God.  That's not to say I always refer to God as Mother instead.  I don't.  I still don't think that's enough.  I try to use gender-neutral descriptions as often as I'm able.  It's not easy, and it usually sounds awkward, but I also know that my abilities as a human to comprehend God are limited.  So, in order to force myself to expand my understanding of God, I need to take God out of the tidy-little box that I grew up with.

Now, please don't take that to mean anyone who views God as "Father" is small-minded in any way.  If understanding God as a father-figure is the best way for you to develop a relationship with God, then that is what you need to do.  My main concern in this post is the ingrained patriarchal language used at the institutional level of the Church to describe not just God, but humanity in general.  So much of the tension in the Catholic Church can be boiled down to how it restricts itself by insisting on constantly portraying God as male, and only male, and upholding antiquated language that no longer reflects the complexity of human nature.

I get why God has been seen as male for so long.  God is the ultimate authority, and men have historically dominated society as its authority figures (because patriarchy).  Our understanding of humanity has also been extremely limited for most of our short time on this earth.  We used to think in much more black and white terms.  There were men, and there were women, and both sides had specific roles to play.  To deviate from those roles was to go against the "natural" order of things.  But, as we have found throughout the years, humanity is much more complicated than that.  We're not as binary as we once thought (though many continue to insist that we are).  What we've learned from science (which is not the enemy of religion, just by the way) and the observation of the human experience is that gender isn't as simple as men and women, and sexuality is a spectrum that we all fall on in different ways.  Our faith tells us that we are made in God's image.  So, if humanity is complicated, why do we insist on making God so simple?

It's impossible for humans to fully comprehend God.  We haven't had, and still really don't have, the language to describe God in a way that doesn't confine God to any one particular image.  We talk about God in ways that make sense to us, but in doing so, we risk closing ourselves off to other manifestations of God because what we imagine God to be cements itself in our heads as a result of the language we are constantly using to describe God.  Language is a powerful tool.  As we learn and develop, explore and grow, our language expands with us.  Words, phrases, and their meanings shift and evolve as our understanding of the human condition becomes more and more intricate and sophisticated.  Human beings need language to define our existence.  We use language to bring order to the chaos that surrounds us, sometimes to our detriment.  We use labels and categories to keep individuals in place, to separate the us from them, to create hierarchies of the privileged and the unprivileged.  We value some variations of language over others to create structures of power for a few and barriers for those whose personal language doesn't match up.

Once upon a time, God was a man because that made sense.  God was Father because that was how the people who worshiped God could begin to comprehend that awesome mystery.  But that's not enough anymore.  We need a broader understanding of God.  We need to stop trying to define God through our own, limited lenses.  What was once a way for humanity to better appreciate and relate to God has become a restrictive, damaging trap that creates greater opportunities for oppression than for redemption.

When God is only "Father", women are secondary to men.  Some would argue otherwise, but it's true.  How can it not be true?  If we worship a male only God, then it's easier to enforce and justify the submissive, subordinate roles that are so often forced on women within the Church, and within society at large.  It's easier to lock them out of leadership within the Church.  To deny them the right to fully participate in the sacramental life of the Church.  We're given excuses like "Jesus only selected male followers", and if you're reading the Bible literally, then yes, Jesus did only choose male followers.  But Catholics aren't supposed to read the Bible as literal history.  The Bible was written within the context of human history, in a certain time and place where societal norms would dictate how the story of Jesus would ultimately be told.  As the norms shift, as we learn and grow, our readings and interpretations of the Bible must also shift and grow as more truths are revealed to us in the world.

We're also told things like "only men can appropriately represent God because of the natural differences between men and women."  Yes, there may be natural differences between men and women, but both are necessary in order to fully understand God.  There may be differences between the genders, but all of those differences reveal a different facet to the mystery of God.  We need all sides to appreciate God.  God is all things, all people, all genders, and by insisting that God be always one way, we lose out on everything else that God is.

Granted, it's not an easy shift to make.  I still catch myself shifting back to male-specific descriptions of God when I'm not paying attention.  It's been ingrained into me my whole life, so it's my automatic reflex when my guard is down.  Just because that's how it's been so far, though, doesn't mean that's how it always should be.  God is more than we let God be.  The Church, as a whole, needs to do more to explore the many faces and facets of God, to recognize the true complexity of the human existence, and to appreciate the great beauty and freedom that lies within this broader understanding of God and of ourselves.  It is only when we allow ourselves the opportunity to see beyond our own limited scope of the world that we can come to truly encounter the divine.

In the name of the Creator, the Word, and the Holy Spirit.

Until next time,
Erin B.


Friday, May 5, 2017

Christianity is Failing in the United States of America

Recently, I had the good fortune to attend Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, D.C.  I didn't really know what to expect going into the conference, but I can honestly say it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life.  Throughout those four days, I was challenged and encouraged, humbled and praised.  We heard from power-house speakers whose passion and dedication to social justice fueled my own.  I was made at some times to feel helpless, and at other times to feel powerful.  One instant filled with sadness, the next overwhelming joy.  I was enraged.  I was hopeful.  The world was laid out for me in all of its stark brokenness.  The curtain yanked back to reveal the wickedness within.  Then an image of the world as it could be, as it should be, was offered.  It was breathtakingly beautiful.  I was moved to tears nearly as often as to laughter.  I was invigorated.  I was motivated.  I was inspired.

I could go on and on about this conference, and spend hours and hours writing about everything I took away from it.  But there's one major takeaway that I really want to focus on in this moment, which is this...

Christianity is failing in the United States of America.

Let me explain.

When I say Christianity is failing in the United States, I don't just mean the Church is failing.  I don't mean it's failing because of the current trend of young people leaving the Church, essentially taking its future with them, although that's definitely a consequence of the failing.  I also don't mean that the U.S. has strayed so far from its Christian roots, both imagined and historically grounded, that it has lost its central values and is navigating the modern world with a broken moral compass.  No, none of that is what I mean when I say that Christianity is failing in the United States.

Christianity is failing in the United States because Christians don't love enough.  We say we do.  We love to talk about just how much we love one another, about how welcoming and hospitable we are towards each other.  When it comes down to it, however, when the call comes to stand up and demand justice, to protect the vulnerable, to challenge the status quo even at the risk of ourselves and our privileges, do we answer that call?

Some of us do.  Most of us don't.

We make excuses that the world is to broken, there's just to much, there's no way for any of it to be truly fixed anyway.  We obsess so much over a Kingdom of God that we envision far off in the future, an afterlife of perfection that is just waiting for us on the other side, that we don't try to bring the Kingdom to us in the here and now.  We put all of the responsibility of change and justice in God's hands, but don't bother to carry our fair-share of the burden.  We push our own agendas on others, disguising it as justice, instead of considering what is good for all people, not just ourselves.

Christianity is failing in this country because we satisfy ourselves with band-aid solutions to our societal problems, instead of digging in and looking at the true issues at the foundation of those problems.  During Ecumenical Advocacy Days, we focused a lot of our attention on Martin Luther King Jr. and his speech "Beyond Vietnam".  In this particular speech, he highlights the "triplets of evil": racism, materialism, and militarism.  Much of what was discussed during the four days focused on the impact and implications of these triplets, still as relevant today as they were 50 years ago when Dr. King wrote his speech, especially within the realm of politics.

People always say that politics don't belong in Church.  The separation of Church and State, for many, means that the Church has no right to try and sway people politically.  To some extent, this is true.  The Church is no place for Bipartisan politics.  The Church is no place for political agendas that don't benefit the majority of people.  But politics do belong within the Church.  And the Mosque.  And the Synagogue.  And the Temple.  Christians must be politically aware and active.  People of faith must be politically aware and active.  It is through our politics, through our government, that the nation's morality and priorities are displayed.  Right now, looking at our politics, the proposed policies and direction the government wants to head, the United States appears greedy.  Power-hungry.  Selfish.  Unconcerned with the most vulnerable and oppressed among its own people.  Unconcerned with the devastation we often leave in our wake around the world.

But what are we, specifically we Christians, doing about it?

Our preachers offer up shallow sermons and homilies.  They don't challenge us in our current context.  They don't address the concerns and realities we face day-to-day.  Yet, whenever a pastor or priest does try to speak to the injustices surrounding us, we criticize them.  Tell them it's not their place.

How often when we talk about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. do we refer to him as Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?  Why are we so easily able to make his faith a footnote of his life when it was the driving force behind almost everything he did?  Why are we so afraid to be challenged by our preachers?  To be challenged by our faith?  To challenge our faith and our faith leaders in turn?

Do we really think we're living out our faith when we turn away from injustice and corruption?  That we're spreading the Gospel message when we refuse to give up any of our creature-comforts so someone less fortunate can have at least what they need to not only survive, but thrive along with us?  That we're truly upholding the gift of Christ's sacrifice on the cross by blaming the poor and oppressed for their lot in life, instead of holding accountable the powers and systems that keep the poor poor and the rich rich?

If we, the people of the Christian faith, do not prioritize the needs and support of the poor and most vulnerable in this nation and this world...if we support or turn a blind-eye to policies that hold materialism and militarism over care of the hungry, the war-torn, the displaced, and the oppressed...then we fail to uphold our purported Christian values.  When white Christians refuse to recognize their innate privilege, refuse to understand how that privilege is built on the pain and suffering of people of color, and refuse to stand against it despite the cost, we fail.  When feminist Christians fail to recognize the extra barriers facing women of color, and don't first strive to catch them up before moving forward in the pursuit of gender equity together, we fail.  When older Christians scoff at young people's efforts for justice, lament at the lost of the young within the Church but don't actually take the time to understand that young people have lost faith in a Church they view as stagnant and passive, we fail.  If we, as Christians, keep our heads down and ourselves quiet because "I doesn't affect me", we fail.  If we don't reach out a hand of friendship and love to our Muslim brothers and sisters, standing up to those who would spread Islamophobia so that hate towards a community of faith is allowed to grow, we fail.  If we aren't enraged every time an unarmed black man is killed in the streets by police, we fail.  If we aren't deeply concerned about the injustice of our prison systems, and how people of color are disproportionately incarcerated to an alarming degree in this country, we fail.  If we don't fight to protect our environment, believing it a gift from God that is not ours to use and abuse, we fail.  If we don't raise our voices in protest when the health of our most vulnerable is put at risk because those in power have prioritized the profits of insurance companies over the well-being of the public they are meant to serve, we fail.  If we don't always work to show compassion and understanding to those whose backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs are different from our own instead of judging and condemning them, we fail.

We fail in living out the Gospel message of radical love, acceptance, and compassion.  We fail to appreciate the gift of the sacrifice that was the crucifixion.  To recognize our responsibility to each other and our world in light of the promise of the resurrection.  We fail Christ.  We fail God.

And in this failure, we forfeit the privilege to call ourselves Christians.

Yet, we are human.  We all will fail from time to time.  Our greatest failure, however, is when we refuse to recognize our own faults.  Our own shortcomings.  When we refuse to try and be better because our own stubbornness and certainty of our own righteousness blinds us to the pain and struggle of others.

Christians need to do better in this country.  We need to love more.  Listen more.  Fight more.  We need to let ourselves be challenged, and not shy away from conflict but embrace it as an opportunity to grow and learn more about our world.  Our faith is not a comfortable one.  We should not let our own comforts mean more to us than the justice of others.

We need to do better, but we can do better.  If we remember that our faith is not, at its heart, a faith of power and prestige, but a humble faith, a sometimes rebellious faith, yet a faith always centered on love and compassion, we stand a chance of getting it right.

That's what I witnessed at Ecumenical Advocacy Days.  Christians from all denominations coming together to do good and to fight injustice because their powerful faith would not allow them to sit on the sidelines and simply watch things happen.  It drove them to make their voices heard, and hold the powers that be accountable for their actions.  It gave me real hope that things can get better.  That things will get better.  We just need to stop using our faith as an excuse to do nothing, and recognize it as our reason to do everything we can to make this world a better place.

Until next time,
Erin B.

Below are some of the very notable plenary speakers from Ecumenical Advocacy Days.  Feel free to view and enjoy!