News testaments on women and religious history

Bible scholar Phyllis Trible was leafing through the Jerusalem Bible translation one day when her eyes lit upon the phrase "the God who fathered you" (Deuteronomy 32:18).

Turning to compare the original Hebrew text, she was shocked at what she found. The Hebrew word translated "fathered" in the Jerusalem Bible was actually the word for a woman in childbirth travail.

"Talk about male bias!" she murmured. "If they didn't want the literal meaning, they could at least have said, 'the God who mothered you.'"

That was years ago.

Now Professor Trible isn't so surprised by such discoveries. Since those early discoveries she and a growing cadre of women who study the history of religion have unearthed an impressive number of female dimensions that have been overlooked down through the centuries.

Female metaphors for God, they say, are far more abundant in Scripture than has often been recognized.

Women, it turns out, played a more active and leading role in early Christianity than historians have acknowledged.

Some Renaissance churchmen apparently made less room for women in the scheme of salvation than has often been assumed -- so much so that certain women researchers are beginning to regard the proverbial "Renaissance man" more as a "Renaissance male."

The list goes on and on.

There is by no means unanimity about the implications of the new studies. Some women scholars view them as much-needed correctives; others as ammunition for advancing feminist causes in secular life.

Interfaith dialogue on these questions has been dampened lately by opposition from conservative Evangelicals. Many women who rallied feminist religious causes in the mid-'70s feel that the traditional churches are hopelessly committed to women's subordination and have left the fight.

Still, all this has not deterred Harvard Divinity School from launching a new program for women's studies in religion -- the first of its kind. Here, women researchers hope to examine religious history under a "non-male microscope" to see what it can mean for women -- and men -- today.

A recent roundtable discussion of women researchers and professors currently at Harvard, indicated that the roots of their motivation reach far deeper than personal religious interests. They are looking for concrete answers to the broader social dilemmas in which women find themselves -- problems from career choices to marriage life styles, from abortion rights to the increasing contact of Western women with other women from more traditional cultures around the world.

"So many women come to me feeling helpless in these areas because they feel that family, church, or society will not permit them the authority to make decisions they need to make," says Carol Robb, a research associate at the Harvard Divinity School and Protestant chaplain at Suffolk University in Boston."we can't help reflecting on how history and tradition hamper women's sense of possibility."

Although Harvard's new program officially gets off the ground next fall, its organizers are convinced that women's research is already having an impact.

The new-found female metaphors for God, for instance, are sending shock waves through some longstanding religious views, according to Professor Trible, who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York and serves on the advisory committee for the new Harvard program.

"Admittedly the vast majority of Biblical metaphors for Deity are patriarchal ," she conceded in a telephone conversation. "But look, for instance, at the many passages throughout the Old Testament that use the word 'womb' to speak of the compassion of God. This is clearly a female metaphor. You can't dismiss it."

The growing awareness of such methaphors in the Bible is making it impossible , in her view, for God to be seen narrowly as male.

Historians at the Harvard roundtable pointed up the growing recognition of women's contributions to early Christianity. For example: their founding of churches in their homes, missionary activities, and exercising spiritual gifts.

Indeed, archaeological findings from the early Christian period -- notably those of Dorothy Irvin at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn. -- reportedly show women holding leadership positions in the early churches and being ordained and exercising ministry on a par with men.

The male-female equality that emerged with Christianity, represented a radical shift from commonly accepted sexual discrimination of those days, observes church historian Margaret Miles. The trend continued for a century or two, she says, but began to freeze with the rise of patriarchal hierarchies that left women subordinate again.

She adds that the traditional emphasis in theological schools on the early controversies over creeds about the "person of Christ" may also be in for a change.

"Those controversies involved very politically minded men traveling to conferences where they bickered about rather fine, abstract theological points. But now we're becoming aware of a whole range of diverse religious explorations of women and men that went in quite different directions from the verbal, abstract methods of creedal controversies."

Other historians are reexamining the Protestant Reformation for its continued influence today. Although that period brought married women more religious recognition from the church, the views of some Reformation figures toward the place of women is less clear, Clarissa Atkinson of Harvard University told the roundtable.

"One of my students is trying to find out whether Calvin felt women were to benefit from God's covenant with man," Professor Atkinson explained."She thinks women arem included, but only as infants might be. I myself," the professor added, "think that about 80 percent of Calvin's references to God's covenant with manm refer to God's covenant with male human beings."m

The conclusions of the women scholars are drawing heavy fire, especially when they are marshaled in defense of secular "feminist" causes.

Not all the women researchers, to be sure, see their work in such feminist terms. Those who do, want to remove the effects of a male bias they feel has tainted religious thinking, propped up male-dominated institutions, or at the very least proven irrelevant women's needs.

The traditional concept of "sin" is a case in point, according to Judith Plaskow, the Manhattan College professor who also advises the Harvard program.

A longstanding "male definition" has long been inappropriate for women, she has written. Male theologians, especially since the Reformation, have defined sin in terms of masculine self-assertiveness and attempting to act like a god. But in the experience of women, she believes, the problem is more often self-condemnation which inhibits women from trying to become all they could be.

Still, some churchmen and layman observers see a plot to rewrite the Bible and religious history with a feminist pen, and they don't like that idea.

During a recent international conference on women's religious roles held at Stony Point, N.Y., Eastern Orthodox women adamantly opposed ideas for demasculinizing Biblical language.

ERA opponent Phyllis Schlafly has sternly warned against efforts to revise the language of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible and to desex the language of church Bible study programs.

"Radical feminist revolutionaries," Mrs. Schlafly told the Monitor in a telephone interview, have been trying to eliminate God as a patriarchal image on the basis of a "feminist ideology that Christianity has been oppressive to women" and that there must be a "neuterization of everything."

"We don't want to have to pray to 'Our Parents which art in Heaven,'" she added.

In defense of the RSV revision, Dr. Bruce Metzger, the eminent Princeton Bible scholar who heads the translation panel, told the Monitor that revision will not interfere with language that speaks of God in terms of "Father" or Jesus in terms of "Son."

Instead, the aim is to weed out masculine images that are not specifically represented in the original texts, he said. Also, words like the Biblical Greek for "man," which can also mean "woman," may be translated by a more general term like "person."

Despite the controversy, many women researchers remain convinced of the need to focus on concrete social problems that face women.

In minority communities, for example, women must reverse a cycle of "victims making victims," according to HDS research associate Dolores Williams. Just as women who reach managerial positions can turn around and discriminate against other women, men in the black community who feel victimized by society can turn around and victimize women, she says.

Yet today's women researchers are exceedingly careful to avoid categorical pronouncements on feminist issues that leave no room for varying shades of interpretation. Jane Smith, an expert in comparative religion at Harvard, drove home the point with the story of her encounter with a Muslim woman from the Middle East:

"I was asking her about the meaning of a verse in the Koran that says men are responsible for women. She said it means that within the family context the male has final authority. She conceded that there are some drawbacks, but concluded that as she looks around herself, it's the only thing that seems to work.

"Now that view is based on a whole understanding of what 'works' means in a particular culture. I personally don't subscribe to my Muslim friend's definition. But we must understand where other people's views are coming from."

Even Muslin feminists, she told the roundtable, reject many aspects of feminist concerns here. Western feminism comes to be suspected as an aspect of imperialism. Muslim women are concerned about the isolation of women in America and attitudes about divorce that leave women without support -- aspects very foreign to their cultures.

It all underscores the dangers, Professor Smith concluded, of trying to universalize feminist viewpoints.

Still, as their research moves carefully ahead, the women at Harvard Divinity School predict the disappearance of barriers that have long prevented women -- and men -- from appreciating the "female side" of their religious heritage.

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