Saturday, May 31, 2008

Could Christ Have Been a Woman?

That’s just one of a number of intriguing questions that Simeon Alev of What Is Enlightenment? magazine posed to Basil Pennington, OCSO (1931-2005) in an interview that took place in 1999. In retrospect, I find some of Pennington’s responses overly optimistic in terms of the institutional Church’s development of a more enlightened understanding of women and their role in the Church.

Yet in light of the conversation sparked by my previous post, Thoughts on Ordination, Intellectual Dishonesty, and the Holy Spirit of Which the Prophet Joel Speaks, I thought I’d share highlights from Alev’s interview of Fr. Pennington - an interview that came about after Alev reflected on the significance of the Apostle Paul’s declaration that “in Christ there is neither male nor female.”

“So,” wondered Alev, “was it simply a coincidence, then, that ‘God the Father’ was male, that Christ and his twelve apostles were male, and that in most traditional Christian denominations the priests, bishops, deacons, etc., were still exclusively male? What did this historical preponderance of maleness mean? . . . More importantly, what was the significance of gender on the Christian path? What were the implications of Christ’s divinity, or enlightenment, for his own relationship to the very human facts of maleness and femaleness? As [these questions] swirled in my mind, it became increasingly clear that we [at What is Enlightenment?] had to speak with someone who could bring real depth and open-mindedness to these challenging questions. I immediately thought of Father Basil Pennington.”

Pennington (pictured at left) was a Trappist monk and priest, and a leading Roman Catholic spiritual writer, speaker, teacher, and director. He became known internationally as one of the major proponents of the Centering Prayer movement begun at St. Joseph’s Abbey during the 1970’s.

Writing at the time of his interview with Pennington, Alev notes that Pennington “has the distinction of having traveled widely to visit the great Spiritual Fathers and Mothers of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He describes his pilgrimages in his anthology, In Search of True Wisdom, co-authored with Sergius Bolshakoff. An important contribution to the Catholic ecumenical movement, the book is a moving account of contemporary efforts to rediscover the riches of the Christian mystical and contemplative tradition.”

Following are excepts from Simeon Alev’s conversation with Father Basil Pennington. Enjoy!


Simeon Alev: Early Christian interpretations of Genesis seem to support the notion of a disparity between the capacities of men and women for spiritual attainment. For example, in I Corinthians the Apostle Paul states, “For man was not made from woman but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman but woman for man.” And religious historian Elaine Pagels writes that according to Paul, like Eve before them, “women, being naturally gullible, are unfit for any role but raising children and keeping house.” And some of the writings of the early Church Fathers state that man alone, and not woman, was created in the image of God. What is your understanding of the significance of the Genesis story?

Basil Pennington: . . . In the writings of Saint Paul, which have had an enormous impact on Christian thinking, he affirms very simply that in Christ there’s neither male nor female, and that the primary goal is becoming this divinized person that is Christ. But then, secondarily, much of what he says is directed to the prevailing social climate of his time – “How do you handle this situation?” and so on – in the context of that social climate. That’s why he’d tell slaves how to behave, and masters how to behave, and lay all sorts of strictures on the way men and women were supposed to function in the Roman household or the Hebrew household that are very difficult for us to hear in such a vastly different cultural context. But if we accept all this from the point of view that God meets people where they are, and that the divine dimension in us is always growing, then suddenly the challenge becomes: Are we really hearing the divine consciousness as it’s coming forth in our time? I mean, that’s not easy either – we’ve all had acculturation, too. I think the greatest challenge for the human race now is to fully accept the equality of men and women and the fullness of humanity and divinization that we share. I think that is what the divine consciousness is calling us to at this point in our evolution.

Simeon Alev: I’m sure many people would agree that is what has to happen, but some would no doubt also assert that a critically important part of that process involves addressing the repercussions of these kinds of sexist ideas having been propagated for so many centuries. For example, feminists such as Mary Daly cite the traditional notion of “God the Father” as quintessential proof that Christianity is really the source of an oppressive global patriarchy. They publicly revile the Church – and particularly the Catholic Church because it has so much power – as a universal oppressor of women. Now, some people say, “Well, that’s too extreme, and it’s not really productive to focus on all that in such a negative way.” Yet, when I asked your friend Father Panteleimon, a charismatic elder in the Greek Orthodox Church, whether the Virgin Mary could just as easily have given birth to a female Savior as a male one, he dismissed that notion as impossible, unnatural and absurd, citing the doctrine of one of the early Church Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, that since Eve’s fall from grace, woman’s reproductive role has rendered her constitutionally unfit for spiritual leadership.

Basil Pennington: Well, I certainly would not agree with that. Father Panteleimon and Christian Orthodoxy as a whole – though again I probably shouldn’t generalize – say that everything stopped with the Seventh Council. What he’s saying there is much more in line with the early Patristic outlook. But at the same time, as I said, we still have an awful lot of cultural conditioning that’s holding us back enormously, and just to fill that out a little, the truth of the matter is that most of us men still wouldn’t exactly want a woman to be our boss. So I often say that the first thing women have to do is to help men to grow up so that men are able to be equals. The reason we men try to keep women down is that in reality we’re scared to death of them – because when they are truly empowered, and we’re not, well, what’s going to happen?

Of course I certainly don’t think that the physiological differences, as you just quoted there from Father Panteleimon, pose any kind of problem. And what may come out of those differences isn’t, in the integral person, a problem either. As I said before, I think they’re a complementarity and an enrichment. And I certainly don’t think that they dictate any kind of hierarchy, either. But one of the great challenges that the Catholic Church has, precisely because it’s Catholic, or “universal” – unlike, say, the Episcopal Church, in which the national church in the United States could do one thing and the one in Indonesia could do another – is that there is a universal teaching authority and a kind of moving together. Now if you’ve traveled around the world as I have, you’re especially aware that this whole evolution of consciousness with regard to the equality of men and women is at very different places in different countries. In some countries, they’re just not ready for it at all. And so the Catholic Church [should be] like a good teacher who meets the students where they are and only takes them to the next step they can master because the teacher knows that if they’re too far out in front of their students, they’ll lose them.

. . . You know, the Catholic Church took quite a leap at the Second Vatican Council and changed a lot of things for the first time in four hundred years, and that really has stretched and strained a lot of people. So moving ahead with the women’s thing has been a matter of doing it gently. Women have moved into the sanctuary and are taking new roles as lectors, ministers of the eucharist, parish counsels, officers of the diocese and so on, so gradually people are getting used to that. But we’re in a country where this evolution is perhaps the most advanced and yet, even here, we still see all the drag that’s around! And when you go to a country that’s been cut off, like China, say, it’s quite clear that they have a long, long way to go.

Simeon Alev: Is it conceivable to you that Christ could have been a woman?

Basil Pennington: In his time and place? No. I mean, look, he had a hard enough time as a man! Could he today? Well, yes, if God had chosen this as the time and place for the Incarnation, I think it could have been possible – though I still suspect he probably would have chosen to be male because the contemporary world is still far from being a place where a female Incarnation would be universally accepted. You know, we’ve seen women in different countries rise to the highest position, but that’s often because they’ve stepped into a male expectation, or what would be called a “male” way of looking at things. And I think the great thing will be when women, as women, can really lead and help society to move ahead. But we’re still a good way from that as far as I can see, in this country and probably every other country in the world.

Simeon Alev: Sociological considerations aside, though, is there anything to Panteleimon’s insistence that there is some inherent limitation on a woman manifesting an attainment equal to Christ's?

Basil Pennington: No. And our Lord used the feminine image when he could – like a mother hen gathering her chicks to her breast and so on. He was very comfortable with men and women. He wasn’t afraid to have John resting at his bosom, and at the same time, he wasn’t afraid of letting Mary Magdalene anoint his feet and kiss them – which was an enormously sensuous and exciting experience! But he had to work in the time and place he chose to come to, which was a very pivotal place inhabited by a Semitic culture, which, because of a certain simplicity and earthiness that it had, made it possible for his message to be absorbed into every other world culture and philosophy. That’s where and when he chose to come, and in that situation I don’t think there would have been much hope, as a woman, of his fulfilling the mission that he’d set for himself.

Simeon Alev: In my talk with Father Panteleimon, he went on to assert that this seemingly discriminatory aspect of the Christian tradition – the Twelve Apostles and the priests all being male – is in fact inspired and sanctioned by God “Himself,” and that allowing the tradition to be toyed with by misguided reformers who want to ordain women can only have disastrous consequences. But some liberal voices within the Catholic Church, such as yours, insist that traditional Christianity’s attitude toward women is not sanctioned by God but has its roots in the patriarchal ambience of the Church’s early history and now can be modified to suit our more socially enlightened times.

Basil Pennington: You know, our present Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, is a very sharp person, and I wonder if he wasn’t sending that very message to the Church and his people when he spoke on this a couple of years ago. According to Catholic belief, you know, he has the power to speak infallibly, but very rarely has it ever been invoked. And when people have tried to push him to speak infallibly about this particular subject, as well as about other things, he’s always refused – so that’s already a message. But it was even more significant to me that two weeks after his very sweet apology for the way his predecessors had treated Galileo, in which he said publicly that they had failed because they’d taken the scriptures too literally, he spoke out against this question of ordaining women, himself explicitly arguing, just as Father Panteleimon does – from a very literal interpretation of scripture – that this male-only priesthood is simply the way it’s always been and always will be. Now, again, he’s a sharp man and I don’t think he was missing that. I think he was sending a message that said, in effect, “Just as they were too sure about Galileo back then, we’re a little too sure about this thing now. Just wait around, boys, and you’ll see.” In other words, I think that by using the very same arguments he himself had said were wrong in the Galileo case, he was saying to us, “Hey, this could change, too!” And not only that it could change but that it will!

To read Simeon Alev’s interview with Fr. Basil Pennington in its entirety, click here.

Recommended Off-site Link:
A Christian Way to Transformation - Basil Pennington, OCSO (Spirituality Today, Fall 1983).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Thoughts on Ordination, Intellectual Dishonesty, & the Holy Spirit of Which the Prophet Joel Speaks
Roman Catholic Womenpriests Ordained in Minneapolis
Reflections on The Da Vinci Code Controversy
Thoughts on The Da Vinci Code
The Sexuality of Jesus

Image: Basil Pennington, OCSO. Photographer unknown.


Anonymous said...

Frankly, as long as Christianity is a variant of Judaism, a patriarchical society as Saul/Paul makes absolutely clear, the man rules.

Enlightenment rejects the domination of one sex over another, of one sex's submission to the other, but not if the conventions are patriarchical.

Yahweh speaks with male pronouns. Yeshua is male. All thirteen apostles, and Paul, are male. Women figured little in Yeshua's ministry, except as "examples." Even Mary, MOG, does not partake of the Passover Supper. Indeed, no female does. Mary, MOG, presides over Pentecost, but inasmuch as Mary, MOG, never appears after -- only males consecrating males -- the issue appears divinely settled. Only men can cross-dress in chasuble, dalmatics, and women get to look on. Mary, MOG, did not get that option at that first Eucharist. So, the "all-male" tripartite ministry, save female deacons, is thoroughly scriptural. So, is homophilia pronounced the sin of idolatry and unnatural. If the Bible is God's Word, what is a person to do?

Play god, and override the Bible, and commit another idolatry? Deny reason and common sense, and obey the Bible, but impede one's humanity? Those are the options.

CDE said...

Why would the woman want a masculine role in the Church? She has her own feminine genius to offer the Church and humanity. If she does not offer her own unique gift to the Church and the world, no one else will, and she will be an accomplice to sexism.

In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a "new feminism" which rejects the temptation of imitating models of "male domination", in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation.

Making my own the words of the concluding message of the Second Vatican Council, I address to women this urgent appeal: "Reconcile people with life". You are called to bear witness to the meaning of genuine love, of that gift of self and of that acceptance of others which are present in a special way in the relationship of husband and wife, but which ought also to be at the heart of every other interpersonal relationship. The experience of motherhood makes you acutely aware of the other person and, at the same time, confers on you a particular task: "Motherhood involves a special communion with the mystery of life, as it develops in the woman's womb ... This unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude towards human beings not only towards her own child, but every human being, which profoundly marks the woman's personality". (Mulieris Dignitatem, paragraph 18). A mother welcomes and carries in herself another human being, enabling it to grow inside her, giving it room, respecting it in its otherness. Women first learn and then teach others that human relations are authentic if they are open to accepting the other person: a person who is recognized and loved because of the dignity which comes from being a person and not from other considerations, such as usefulness, strength, intelligence, beauty or health. This is the fundamental contribution which the Church and humanity expect from women. And it is the indispensable prerequisite for an authentic cultural change.

- from Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II, paragraph 99