06 September 2012

More on 'the special nature of women'

Vitalii Vorobyov, "Portrait of Tanya with her
friend." (More from the current exhibition of
Elektrostal's artists here.)
Last week I posted almost all of a talk given by Patriarch Kirill on the "special nature of women."

As I was re-reading the talk a couple of days ago, my mind went back to the hours I spent talking with my late friend Betsy Moen (Elizabeth Moen Mathiot of Boulder Friends Meeting and the University of Colorado) on the subject of women's divine nature.

Betsy served on the Right Sharing of World Resources committee for most of the years I was its staff member. We talked many times about many subjects. We even co-led a Right Sharing study tour in Jamaica, along with Jamaican Friend Oswald Murray. But the specific conversations I'm remembering now took place back in 1990 at the guesthouse of the Gandhi Memorial Museum in Madurai, India.

(It was there, in her room at that guesthouse, that she unexpectedly died on March 11, 1993, about two weeks after I left the Right Sharing staff.)

I was in India to visit the human-scale development projects that Right Sharing was funding, or considering funding, in Tamil Nadu and Kerala states. My visit was far too short, but Betsy had been studying local patterns of development for years by then, and she did her best to educate me on the cultural and spiritual context of those patterns as she saw them. (A sample of her work—and her voice—is online here.) In the process, she also introduced me to many local activists and scholars, and she gave me a tour of the Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai, where we witnessed the nightly procession of goddess Meenakshi's consort Sundareswarar to Meenakshi's bedroom. He spends the night there but processes back to his own place at dawn.

As in many other cultures and religions, Hinduism ascribes huge importance to feminine aspects of divinity and to the crucial divine feminine principle, without which the masculine aspects of divinity are ineffective. In the daily life of ordinary people, this principle is transmuted into expectations that women are responsible for fertility and for maintaining the respectability of the household. The powerful, dynamic image of divine sexual equilibrium isn't reflected in political patterns among us mortals. This was Betsy's concern and fascination, and the subject of our conversations: why is femininity cherished in the abstract but without concrete consequences for the division of labor and resources?

Grassroots development organizations in southern India had long since realized that Western funders liked funding "women's projects." Many studies showed that when women had more resources, they devoted them to the family, whereas men tended to use them to make their own lives more enjoyable. As a result of this funding trend, we found several organizations with very capable women in charge—and others, where a wife or junior staffer was the figurehead leader for the sake of attracting funds, while all decisions were made by men.

Christians also ascribe great importance to female expressions of divinity and discipleship, starting with Mary the Mother of God. Pope John Paul II's personal motto was "totally yours," expressing total devotion to Mary. Kirill credits women with (in general) preserving sacred values and transmitting them from generation to generation, and (concretely) preserving the Russian church during the years of Communist repression. But both men are utterly opposed to the ordination of women or their participation in the hierarchy. Christianity, cumulatively and often inarticulately, has been a huge force for women's social advancement, but I'm convinced that this happened because human liberation is at the very heart of the Gospel—not because most of its practitioners actually knew through the centuries that this would happen.

I have heard most of the excuses for the subordination of women in the church, including those based on Scripture and those based on elaborate theories of complementarity—that we're all equal, but our roles are different (and of course we men alone are qualified to police those roles). What I would love to hear is the defenders of these theories and interpretations confronting their own self-interest in the positions they defend:
  • Have you examined honestly whether you yourself would tolerate the restrictions that you are prepared to impose wholesale on others?
  • How much does your own convenience, your power, or the mystique of your identity depend on denying freedom to others? How does this state of affairs affect the way you interpret Scripture?
  • When do you interpret Scripture to say "no" to others, and when do you interpret it to say "yes" (or "it doesn't speak decisively here") to yourself and your buddies?
  • Even if we granted that, in a traditional society, a particular gender-role pattern seems to prevail 90% of the time, does that justify requiring it 100% of the time?
  • Leaving aside for a moment all the evidence from Scripture and tradition that you might bring to bear, how afraid are you of the consequences of not toeing the party line among your peers, supervisors, mentors, and followers? Would you lose friendships, credibility, salary?
We Quakers, with our functional theology, got this matter right because we trust the Holy Spirit to distribute spiritual gifts by God's wisdom rather than human formulas or human convenience. Here's what bothers me, however.... I cannot claim that we are better people, that I am a better person, than Kirill, John Paul II, or others whose traditions and practices have a scandalous blind spot when it comes to women in leadership. What is our blind spot? What is mine?

Related: Straw feminists.

A Web page devoted to the memory of Betsy Moen.

And in honor of Jeremy Mott, who died four days ago, I'm posting this link to his important lecture on the peace testimony and the war in Viet Nam, a talk I had the pleasure of hearing in person. Jeremy commented frequently on this blog, most recently here. [Update: Jeremy's lecture is no longer available either on the original site or on archive.org. The book Friends and the Vietnam War, which contains this lecture, is still available from Pendle Hill.]

Jeremy's comments on my blog often reminded me of his frequent letters to me and to Quaker Life when I was at Friends United Meeting. His letters were always on postal cards; if he needed more space, he'd simply continue on another card, and another. We grew accustomed to his missives arriving piecemeal over a period of several days.

Far more important than the method of delivery was his wonderful ability to stay in touch with the worldwide Quaker community and trace commonalities among people who themselves were not aware of them. He was almost a one-man Quaker intelligence service in more than one sense of the term—but his careful listening, tracking, and correspondence had a more than informational point to them. It was his unique form of pastoral care for his far-flung Quaker family.

"Confessions of an accidental feminist."

Kirk Wattles preserves Web access to Edward Grubb's George Fox and Christian Theology.

... and in case you've not seen this landmark essay by Margaret Fell, "Women's Speaking Justified..."

"The Conversion of Joel Kovel  (Part 1)"

"The Blessing of a Quilt."

From Friends Committee on National Legislation: "Three Things You Need to Know about the IAEA Report on Iran."

"Hugh Laurie Sings the Blues"—an interview by Sophie Harris.

Big Daddy Wilson, "I heard the angels singing."

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