22 March 2007

A Woman and a Friend

A couple of months ago, I sought counsel from a woman Friend who has done extensive hospice work. I wanted guidance on how to help my parents through these last months or years of my father's life. My Friend had much to offer: practical advice, reassurance, and a calm acceptance of death.

As I was thanking her for her generous support, we got to talking about Meeting dynamics. She made a comment about the increased Christian ministry in Meeting and how it seems to speak to many new attenders.

I heard hesitancy in her voice, so I asked, "And does it speak to you?"

She looked me straight in the eye and said, "I'm a woman."

Her words shifted something in me. I thought of my long struggle to make peace with the Christianity in Quakerism. I had even come to identify myself as Christian. I thought of how often someone on the Quaker blogosphere proclaims the need for more Christianity in Quakerism, and how uneasy that makes me feel. I imagine Quakers becoming so evangelical that they declaim homosexuality and insist that I cover my head, muffle my voice, and submit to my husband.

About a week after that, I ran across my copy of Starhawk's The Fifth Sacred Thing. I read Starhawk's inscription to me and remembered our time in jail together after being arrested at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. I thought of all I had laid down in the process of becoming a Quaker. Perhaps it is time to pick it up again.

My thoughts simmered until my women's prayer group. l shared that I was uncomfortable with calls to make Quakerism more Christian, unless being more Christian means that we try to love one another better.

In worship, I can usually hear Friends' messages, whatever the language they use. The language of the Bible, however, does not speak to me directly. The Bible was written by men, from a male perspective. The Bible does not present either a rich or positive view of women and female spirituality. Women can learn to overlook and filter the negative, but we cannot find female voices in a medium in which they don't exist.

At our Meeting retreat, we broke into small groups and did an exercise to identify one another's spiritual gifts. One woman observed that I have a deep connection with the Earth, that I have learned to live in harmony with nature instead of in opposition to it.

Another puzzle piece snapped sharply into place for me. What we need in Quakerism is greater universalism, more connection with the Earth, more connection with the world's peoples, more connection with our bodies, and deeper attention to how we can live in harmony with one another and with the rest of creation. We need to spend more time listening to trees and watching banana slugs. We need to spend more time listening to those with different viewpoints and less time consolidating our own. We need to be more present in our bodies and spend less time abstracting away from our physical existence.

This I know experimentally: the Earth is sacred. The Goddess is immanent in creation. Every living thing on this planet is an embodiment of the Divine. Our salvation is right here, in these bodies, on this planet. How we treat one another matters. How we treat the Earth matters.

If Biblical language moves your soul, I rejoice for you. I just ask that you let the trees get a word in edgewise now and then, that you listen to the thrum of the living Earth, that you sink deep into your body and recognize that you too are an animal in the biosphere.

We are at a crossroads. The future of the Earth and all the living creatures on the Earth may very well depend on how we act in the next few years. Let's not waste our time squabbling about terminology. Let's go deeper, Friends, and do the work we are called to do.


Anonymous said...

This Friend speaks my mind. Thank you.
Nan in Santa Barbara

liberata said...

There are parts of the Bible that speak volumes to me. For instance, when the prophets speak about justice. Or when Jesus asks, "And who is my neighbor?" and tells the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Another episode that I continually return to and meditate on is the episode of Jesus and the woman at the well. Biblical scholars feel that this anecdote never took place but was invented by the "evangelist" to explain how the Samaritans came to believe ...I find that alone significant, that the writer chose to imagine a dialog between Jesus and a woman as the crucial moment of a people finding faith; that Jesus disregards how many husbands she's had and goes right to the heart of the matter with her: the Father seeks those who worship in Spirit and in Truth. The evangelist imagined a woman who could hold her own against a male theologian. It is the commentators down through the ages who have distorted this story, concentrating on the woman's many husbands and obsessing about her sinfulness. The writer does not, nor does he depict Jesus as doing that.

Perhaps I'm just having a heady experience after finally finding the courage to leave a very masculine church to become a Quaker.

We read in Fox's journal that he rebuked a "priest" who refused to answer a woman's question, telling her that he did not permit a woman to speak in church. And I think of all the Quaker women who did not submit but followed instead their callings to be abolitionists and suffragists.

Quaker women have already taken on the Bible. One of the greatest revelations of my life was the day I came across Elizabeth Cady Stanton's The Woman's Bible.

She says the simple truth for me in her preface: that there are certain passages that are so offensive to women and disrespectful of them tha t they should be excised. I agree. But there are many passages that still speak to me. As a woman I claim them.

Again, I think part of the problem is Church teaching. As a woman I find doctrines such as the vicarious redemption --God the Father as child abuser, as one critic put it-- abhorrent. I've read Mary Daly's works, and have also wondered if Jesus can be my Savior.

But I have reclaimed Jesus as an itinerant rabbi and teacher, who taught love of enemies and love of justice and who paid the price. I believe that he points to God, not that he is God. And I find in him a teacher and a courageous example of standing up for the downtrodden of the earth.

All this does not exclude love and reverence for the Earth ... I believe that love is inclusive, non exclusive!

( BTW, I enjoyed The Fifth Sacred Thing. I really admire Starhawk.)


weaverann said...

Have you read Sue Monk Kidd's (author of Secret Life of Bees) "Dance of the Dissident Daughter"? She was raised in a Southern Baptist tradition, married to a Baptist chaplain, was a well-paid "Christian" writer, and left it all on her journey to discover her woman's relationship to Godde.

As I read more (especially Elaine Pagels) about the history of the bible and the Nicene creed, which has defined most of Christianity since its conception, I call myself a Christian less and less. Instead, I just say that I try to follow Jesus. I do still draw from the bible and study its history as it is such a part of our cultural fabric, and I do find much in it that lifts me up. But Martin Luther said that we should approach the bible as we do the manger--it is the vessel that contains the Christ child, but we don't worship it, and besides the baby, there is also some straw.

Timothy Travis said...

I wonder a lot about this "women's spirituality" and "men's spirituality," and about the sharp distinctions drawn between male and female.

I have worked with women who came within inches and moments of killing their own children and yet they believe that nurturance is a female gift that men can never share.

And I have met so many men who have so many notions that are equally ridiculous about themselves and their sex and about the other.

I marvel at the evil done to us and by us in the name of trying to live up to--or trying to make others live up to--such delusions that we learn at the knee of culture.

No wonder we are so alienated from God and from one another, at times. How can we be at one with one another when we are trying earnestly to pretend we are something we are not with others who are also pretending to be something they are not? All pretending because we know what secondary sex characteristics we have and, based on that, certain things must be true.

I have seen and felt great "unity" with others, myself, and among others I have observed when, it was later opened to me, it was really just people recognizing their own contrivances in others and, they being at least as artfully carried off as our own, were joined in mutual admiration.

There is a day coming, and it is here, in which people can be and are pushed through the masks and the proud and manipulative self/other definitiions--no longer trying to be that which they "must" be, and to make others be what they "must" be, but, rather, being in the unity into which they have been transformed.

Dave Trowbridge said...

I found Quakerism when I had decided that I could not be a Nicene Christian anymore. I resonate with much that you say here.

Have you ever read any of Matthew Fox's creation spirituality? He rescues Christianity from much of the masculine, dominance-oriented discourse preserved by traditional churches, and emphasizes the goodness of Creation and the role of the feminine. I find his discussions of the works of Meister Eckhart especially illuminating.

Paul L said...

Heather -- It sounds to me as if you are letting others interpret the biblical narrative and Christianity and then rejecting the Bible and Christianity because those interpretations are biased, offensive, or irrelevant. This is easy to do when a certain narrow brand of psuedo-Christians are over-represented in the mass media and dominate the public discussion, but there is no reason why we -- Quakers in particular -- should let them get away with it. (Any more than why we should let war-mongering Americans hijack the flag or the Bill of Rights.)

Psuedo, counterfeit Christian hijackers like Jerry Fallwall, Pat Robertson, Tim Le Haye, Phyllis Schlafly, James Dobson, George W Bush etc. don't have the right to define to Christianity; they answer to the same authority we do, and we shouldn't let their misrepresentations and distortions go unchallenged.

This was the situation George Fox and the first Quakers found themselves in. They didn't reason: "The Church of England is Christian; Christianity is based on the Bible; the teachings of the Church of England are wrong; ergo, Christianity and the Bible are wrong."

They said, "Biblical Christianity is true. The Church of England's teachings are unbiblical and false. Ergo, the Church of England's teachings are un-Christian."

They said: "What you are preaching [about women, the nature of ministry, the authority of scripture, predestination of the elect, war, etc.] is not true; it's false, unbiblical, un-Christian, and informed more by your egocentric cultural paradigm than by the spirit of the Living God." (OK, they wouldn't have said "egocentric cultural paradigm"; they would have said "self-worship idoltry", but you get the point.)

We Quakers therefore do not have to concede the Bible to anyone, unless we're just worn out.

This doesn't require us to elevate the Bible to a position that the Bible itself denies (i.e., according to the Bible, Jesus is the Word of God, not the scripture). Nor does it mean that we shouldn't read the Bible critically and frankly admit that there are parts we don't understand or that, in our present condition, seem patently false. But I think it gives up too much ground to the fake Christians to agree with them that the Bible says and means what they say it says and means, about women, homosexuality, slavery, war, or anything else.

Heather Madrone said...

Friends, thank you for your thoughtful comments. It's so difficult to communicate deeply in this medium, and I appreciate your effort to do so.


Thanks for sharing the parts of the Bible that do resonate with you. There are certainly parts of the Bible that resonate with me, particularly when others quote them to me out of context. When I read the Bible for myself, however, I feel like I'm picking my way through a mine field.

About a year ago, I remembered a quote from Isaiah that my aunt had used to rouse me from bed. I decided to re-read Isaiah for myself during my morning meditations. I was appalled. Most of it did not seem beautiful or spiritual at all.

My interactions with the Bible are often like that. They start with a passage that sounds deep and meaningful. Then I run into passages that seem not quite right or not right at all or even contain seeds of evil.

I have made it all the way through the Bible twice, once when I was a young teen. I read it uncritically then, and thrilled to the poetry in much the same way I thrill to the poetry in Shakespeare. The second time was a few years back, when I read it with Asimov's guides to the Old and New Testaments, a children's Bible that shows the geography and cultural background, and all of the pertaining notes in the New Jerusalem edition.

Anyway, when it comes to the Bible, it seems to be mostly chaff for me and not much wheat.

I'm also fairly certain that Elizabeth Cady Stanton wasn't ever a Quaker. I think she was Baptist. Lucretia Mott got in trouble with her Meeting for consorting with Baptists and Unitarians, and, if I remember correctly, Stanton was one of the Baptists.

Weaver Ann, thank you for recommending Kidd's book. In the past few years, I decided that I can call myself a Christian because I try to follow Jesus' commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. I don't want to leave the mantle of Christianity to the less desirable elements of Christendom.

Timothy, I appreciate your thoughts. Certainly there is much that the two genders share, and I appreciate your caution against separatism. Each gender has certain experiences, however, that the other doesn't share.

For me, giving birth was a powerful spiritual experience that informs my ongoing spiritual practice. No man is going to be able to speak from his own experience about the struggle to move a baby through the pelvic bones. If I rely on a book written solely by men as a spiritual guide, women's experience will be absent from it. It's not that there's anything wrong or bad about male experience; it's just that we need female voices as well as male voices.

Dave, thanks for your book recommendation. I look forward to chatting with you about this in the flesh.

Paul, what you are describing reminds me very much of my own decision to reclaim Christianity. I don't find, however, that the Bible has become more attractive or accessible to me as time goes on. It's a mixed bag, and passages of great beauty rub elbows with passages whose moral basis is questionable to objectionable.

I also find that a diet limited to Christian theology, even good Christian theology, has negative effects on my own spiritual growth. I need something more. I need earth-centered metaphors, metaphors that reach into my experience as a woman, metaphors the feed my soul.

anj said...

I have sat with your post for a while, trying to gain clarity as to why your words impacted me so deeply. All I can say is that I find your Friends response to your question saddens me. Although I understand it, it still saddens me.

Chris M. said...

Wow. I first read your post before there were comments. Today I was reading anj's blog, found a post she wrote, and thought, "Oh, Heather should read this."

Then I got back over here, and you had written in the comments about the experience of giving birth... and then found that anj herself had left a comment.

So it was with some sense of trepidation (or perhaps fear and trembling), and yet also a sense of Way Opening, that I lift up anj's post giving birth for your consideration.

-- Chris M.

Heather Madrone said...

Wow, Chris, thanks for suggesting that I read Anj's blog. What a powerful post!

Anj, I took some time to read back through your blog. Your family and your health are in my prayers.

dairedreamingoak said...

I am an interested bystander really, a peson who is seriously considering converting to quakerism.
But i find myself deeply confused by this post... my own stance is very much more 'listening to the still small voice within'.... did this woman mean, women don't get 'spoken to' of christian themes? or that , the horror, women are not allowed to speak?! or that in her experience, women are not called to speak to meeting? this is deeply concerning and confusing. I had though that it was inherent to quakerism that all are equal, that all may speak at the prompting of spirit, and that each persons own experience of the Divine is respected and cherished.
please clarify this issue for me.

Heather Madrone said...


I definitely did not mean to imply that women can't speak in Meeting or aren't called to speak in Meeting. I was reacting to a trend towards more Christian ministry (and some domination of the ministry by a small group of men) that resulted in a time of fewer women's messages and fewer earth-based messages.

That seems to be turning around now, and Meeting feels more balanced again. The woman Friend who prompted me to write this post has been speaking in Meeting more.