Wednesday, March 28, 2007

In the Garden of Spirituality: Uta Ranke-Heinemann

“We are not on earth to guard a museum,
but to cultivate a flowering garden of life.”

Pope John XXIII

Uta Ranke-Heinemann was the first woman professor of Catholic theology in Germany, teaching in the theology department of the University of Essen. In 1987, the Vatican declared her ineligible to teach theology, after she pronounced the virgin birth a theological belief and not a biological fact.*

Hans Küng, who had similarly been silenced by the Vatican, Ranke-Heinemann transferred to a history of religion professorship. She continues to teach at the University of Essen.

The following is excerpted from the introduction to her 1992 book, Putting Away Childish Things: The Virgin Birth, the Empty Tomb, and Other Fairy Tales You Don’t Need to Believe to Have a Living Faith, which internationally renowned historian of religion Karen Armstrong notes, “skillfully disentangles the web of contradictions and improbabilities that surround the Christian story to reveal the essential underlying truth.”

Putting Away Childish Things, says Armstrong, is “a timely reminder that faith is often confused with belief and an acceptance of certain religious opinions. [It] demonstrates the futility of assuming that a religious message conveys factual information and directs the reader to its deeper purpose.”


Human beings want to believe. People are therefore the ideal soil for the seed of religion. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as they’re dealing with God himself, because people can trust God not to hoodwink them. But we humans deal not so much with God as with his authorized deputies. Since they assume us that it’s all for our eternal happiness and salvation, we let them tell us many tales. Believers accept without question what they’re taught to believe and do, because authority comes forward bearing a mandate from God, doubt seems to be a sin.

Christians have to deal with God’s truth only indirectly, because as the catechism says: “The Catholic Church teaches us what God has revealed.” Or, as a Catholic hymn puts it: “O God, I believe with all my heart/That what your Church teaches is true,/For both the written and unwritten part/Came to her directly from you.” Thus Christians only get the truth secondhand, if at all. But truth that has passed through alien hands is a censored truth, and the God whom we meet at the end of a series of ecclesiastical middlemen is a censored God. The truth, or whatever remains of it, has degenerated – thanks to theologically dense Christian pastors – into a mass of misunderstood and incomprehensible teachings; in other words, into pseudo-faith and superstition.

The Church calls on us to believe and not to think. Thus, throughout their lives, believers practice the mental gymnastics of saying amen to everything they’re told. In a religion that blesses believers and distrusts doubters, the questioners go unblessed and arouse suspicion in more than a few believers. Yet questioning is a Christian virtue, though seldom practiced by Christians.

Still, it may be that people are no longer content with what others insist that they believe. People seem no longer to listen and to give credit to fairy tales, because their hearts and minds find it too painful.

But what are they to turn to? The Church isn’t interested in understanding or enlightenment: Every variety of enlightenment strikes it as suspicious, if not worthy of damnation. The Church speaks only about the hurt done to its religious feelings. It closely monitors such hurt and is often running to the courts. Unfortunately, it pays too little attention to the hurt done to our religious intelligence, which has no legal protection. From the law’s point of view, such intelligence doesn’t even exist. Hence, people who long for the truth – and who mean by that more than the truths served up to them by the “servants of the servants of God” – are thrown back on their own devices.

[Putting Away Childish Things is] designed to help this questing intelligence. Some people will say this harms the faith, but understanding can’t harm faith; actually, it’s faith that has all too often harmed the understanding. . . . When people who long for a more immediate, authentic, and large-scale truth simply walk away from verbose and empty sermonizing, it sometimes happens that a new truth, beautiful and gentle, dawns in the darkness. This is the truth of God’s compassion, which has been obscured by the Church’s many fairy tales and which is nonetheless the only truth – and the only hope.

We encounter this truth in the person of Jesus. We know neither when and where he was born, nor when he died: He is a man without a biography. We don’t know how long his public activity as a preacher lasted or where exactly it took place. Strictly speaking, we don’t know a whole lot more than that he was born, that there were people who followed him as his disciples, and that he was executed on the cross – the Roman version of the gallows – and thus came to a wretched end.

We don’t know a lot about Jesus. But if we trace his steps, we sense that he sought – and found – God; that he wanted to reveal this God as being close to every one of us; and that he wanted to make everyone an intimate both of God and of his or her neighbor. Anyone who cares to know also realizes that Jesus’ voice is as much a living voice as ever; his truth a living truth; and his God a living God, near to us all.

From Putting Away Childish Things: The Virgin Birth, the Empty Tomb, and Other Fairy Tales You Don't Have to Believe to Have a Living Faith by Uta Ranke-Heinemann (English translation: Harper Collins, New York, 1994).

* The key points raised by Uta Ranke-Heinemann in relation to the virgin birth:

1. In many pre-Christian cultures stories of virgin births were frequently employed as myths. These myths pointed to the birth of a divine savior-figure from a virgin mother. Though the myth of virgin birth was especially prevalent in the Hellenistic (Greek) world, it was wholly alien to the Judaic world – the culture within which Jesus was born and raised.

2. It is erroneous of Christians to insist that Jesus’ divinity is dependent upon the factual occurrence of the virgin birth. Jesus is divine by his very nature (an ontological fact), not by the circumstances of his birth (a biological fact). Jesus could have had a human father and still have been divine.

3. By asserting that Jesus was the result of a virgin birth, the later writers of the New Testament (Matthew and Luke) could better support their view to potential converts within the Greek world that Jesus was a divine redeemer. Earlier New Testament writers, such as Paul and Mark, were not writing to Hellenistic audiences and so did not feel compelled to support the divinity of Jesus with a virgin birth narrative.

4. The virgin birth myths of the ancient world were all constructed with a limited and faulty understanding of human reproduction – especially with regards to the female role in reproduction. Women were viewed as the empty vessel in which the sacred seed (i.e., human life) was deposited by the male. The female’s role in creating this life was not understood or acknowledged.

Image 1: Michael Bayly
Image 2: Stuart Mentiply

Recommended Off-site Links:
A 2005 interview with Uta Ranke-Heinemann.
“My Travels with Uta” by John D. Spalding.
A summary of Ranke-Heinemann’s best-selling book, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
In the Garden of Spirituality: Zainab Salbi
In the Garden of Spirituality: Daniel Helminiak
In the Garden of Spirituality: Rod Cameron
In the Garden of Spirituality: Paul Collins
In the Garden of Spirituality: Joan Chittister
In the Garden of Spirituality: Toby Johnson
In the Garden of Spirituality: Joan Timmerman

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