The Perils of Transcendent Patriarachal Monotheism

This essay was delivered as a talk to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tallahassee on April 29, 2007.

Not to be too Henny Pennyish, but I think the end times are upon us – not the end of all times, but the end of western civilization as we have come to know and love it – and, from my point of view, it’s about time. If we don’t accept and promote this end – and look for a new beginning, a radically new way of being in the world, we or our grandchildren may be facing the end of the human species altogether.

From my point of view, the place to start in changing our ways is with the way we think about religion in general and Christianity in particular. One of the ways we liberals think about Christianity is that it is a collection of silly stories and superstitious beliefs which only complete fools could believe in. Another way we think about religion is that the stories are not meant to be taken literally, for it is the morals of the stories, not the stories themselves, which form the kernel of religious belief.

Perversely, I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with both approaches: I do not dismiss the Bible or Christian doctrine as being fundamentally silly or superstitious; but, along with the Richard Dawkins’s of this world, I do believe that anyone who takes the stories literally is more than a little off base. Like the liberal Christians of this world, I do believe it is the moral of the story, not the story itself which is where the message is; however, I no longer believe in the message, having come to the conclusion that, due to unintended consequences, the moral itself has become immoral – promoting death and destruction rather than life and the well being of all.

So if I believe in neither the story nor the moral, why don’t I just get on with my life and abandon religion altogether? Because I believe that Christianity is too powerful and dangerous a force in our culture to be cavalierly dismissed. To me, religion is not just one aspect of culture, it is the essential shaper of culture and cultural institutions. Religions, when they are functioning properly, have an evolutionary purpose: religious symbols are the carriers of cultural value systems which in turn generate cultural worldviews which ultimately promote social stability and individual survival.

The JudeoChristian God is the symbol which carries the value system of western culture. From my perspective, Genesis is not the story of the creation of the world, but the story of the creation of our worldview. God The Symbol is the creator of our psychological reality, the shaper of human consciousness within JC society, signaling what is important, what is not important, what is good and what is bad, what has value and what has no value.

In the ANE, the priestly editors who put the Bible together created a new kind of deity, God the Father, for a new kind of religion, transcendent patriarchal monotheism, which served the interests of a new world order. This God generated a worldview which served the interests of burgeoning empire — a far-flung, but urban-centered empire, dependent on the acquisition of territory and the subservience of others. Over the centuries, The JC worldview has done its job well – serving emperors and emperor want-to-be’s from Constantine to George Bush, providing a moral justitfication for military conquest, the exploitation of nature, and a hierarchical social and economic organization which promotes the subordination of women.

The JC God’s relationship to humanity symbolizes the social contract where a leader of fatherly mien vows to protect and save his people in return for abject obedience and loyalty. The many give up their power to the few – or the one – with the understanding that as long as the many hold up their part of the bargain, the few will use their power to protect them. God the Father is the symbolic model for the one person or one group who holds the power and has the will to use it responsibly.

As Christian doctrine evolved, God the Son became the symbol for the many who sacrificed their labor and their lives –believing that even if they experienced earthly life as a vale of tears, a heavenly reward was waiting. God’s relationship to humanity symbolically provided the political formula for social – and individual — survival within the setting of an urban-centered empire, and it has worked pretty well up until now.

But today, is the JC worldview still working? Is it promoting our survival or threatening it? And if it is truly threatening us, as I believe it is, why is it so difficult to make substantive changes? It is that difficulty I wish to address and it goes to my understanding of human nature.

As far as I can tell, the difference between human and non-human animals lies in the fact that, although both human and non-human animals share the inborn drive to survive, survival behaviors are genetically programmed in non human animals and culturally programmed in human animals. As Clifford Geertz says in his book Interpretation of Culture, without humanity there would be no culture, but without culture, there would be no humanity. What this means is that human brains require cultural programming in order to function. Put another way, the human animal is genetically programmed to be culturally programmed. Just as Noam Chomsky has proposed a deep structure for language, I am proposing a deep structure for cultural values.

Cultural programming provides a culture-specific worldview, which orders and filters what William James called the blooming, buzzing mass of confusion otherwise known as reality. Without a common worldview there can be no collective action which means there can be no society. Cultural programming is performed through the use of symbols. The symbols which are the most significant to the process of cultural programming are religious. Through religious teachings, church services, etc., religion inculcates belief in the worldview it is creating. The worldview is then extended throughout society through non-religious, social institutions – it is even reflected in the built environment – reinforcing the idea that what we take for reality is reality itself. Our worldview literally shapes our consciousness and our world. Therefore, if you are a member of this culture, you have absorbed a cultural value system which is directly traceable to Christianity – specifically to the Christian concept of God — even if you have never been inside a church, even if you believe that you have come by your values as a result of logical, reasonable, and independent thought.

To use a computer-related analogy by way of explanation, a cultural worldview is the “functional user interface” installed in the human brain by outside sources. The better a worldview filters out the noise, the more accurately a worldview selects for those aspects of environmental, social, and psychological conditions which we must deal with in order to survive — the more successful it is, the more it is “transparent to the user.”

But precisely because it is transparent to the user, a cultural worldview is taken as reality, as the natural order of things. Which is as it should be. Unless of course, reality diverges from the worldview in significant ways – in ways which threaten our survival. Then, it is time to raise the alarm and our consciousness; then it is time to generate a new worldview. This is where I think we find ourselves today.

By any measure, Christianity, and its spin-off — “enlightenment values” — has been a resounding success. It has created the most powerful and influential culture on the planet today – but one which seems in danger of self-destructing – and taking everyone and everything else with it. On almost every front, significant changes in our surroundings are seriously throwing our world and our worldview out of kilter. With population densities straining earth’s carrying capacity, the Christian admonition to “Go forth and multiply” seems like a recipe for disaster. Toxic air and water call into question the whole idea of the advisability of man’s dominion over the earth. With our cultural guidance system on the blink, we find ourselves in a sort of limbo – characterized by a general breakdown in cultural values.

But, when the worldview is no longer accurate, it is only logical that the values associated with that worldview no longer make any sense. We cannot unlearn what we have found out; we cannot undo what we have done. There is no going back, but we haven’t a clue how to move forward. As a result, we are in a world of hurt. Social and environmental changes coupled with the accompanying disintegration of our value system doubly threaten the survivability of the human species. As there is no returning to conditions which no longer exist, we must fare forward in search of a new, more accurate understanding of reality. But, faring forward places us in liminal space which is always dangerous territory – making us fearful, making us want to retreat, making us watch Fox – and sending us in droves to the safety and authority of evangelical churches.

To aid us in our transition out of the old mindset, we need to thoroughly understand what no longer works and why. We need to psychoanalyze the collective unconscious – or the unconscious of the collective, i.e., all those cultural attitudes and beliefs which are so ingrained in us that, as a culture, we take them for granted as the natural order of things. For, unless the part they are playing in our cultural disintegration is understood and acknowledged, they will continue to ensnare us and prevent us from finding our way out of the perilous situation we are in. The best place to get a handle on the old, out-of-date worldview is to go back and take a closer look at the religion which established it.

The editors of the Bible and the purveyors of Christian doctrine very deliberately described their God as Creator, as One (even when he is three), as Transcendent Spirit, as Male, as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent and a resident of heaven. They did such a good job that in the “Does God Exist” debate no one questions the JC God’s attributes. From the most rabid fundamentalist to the most atheistic scientist, it seems that both sides tacitly agree, that if there were a god or if there were no god, the God to argue for or against, the God to believe or disbelieve in is this powerful, authoritative, spiritual, transcendent version of a human male. I mean, no one is going to waste ink or words disproving the existence of Kali or some other heathen god or goddess. But why is a many armed goddess any more absurd than an old man who lives in the sky and has genocidal tendencies. Regardless of how silly or frightening the image of the old man in the sky is, at a very deep level, what the image symbolizes, whether we are aware of it or not, still apparently makes some sort of psychological sense to a great many of us which is why it is so dangerous.

So, to get a better understanding of our culture and ourselves, let’s analyze a few of God’s attributes which are the building blocks of our worldview. I would like to focus on just three: transcendence, oneness, and maleness – because these attributes both model and define JC man’s relationship to nature, other people, and subordinated groups within our society.

The term transcendence has very positive connotations in our society. It suggests an image of humanity where soaring intellects are freed from the constraints of our earth-bound, death-bound bodies. To transcend is to move beyond – to rise above. Genesis’ creator God, unlike the nature deities of the ANE, transcends the material world in every way. He is essentially different from creation, he is essentially superior to creation. Read symbolically, the JC God symbolized a sophisticated Iron Age humanity’s new relationship to nature and other less technologically advanced peoples. Through the use of agricultural and military technology, iron-age humanity had lifted itself out of nature in order to control it. A society which imaged itself as empowered by science and technology so as to control nature and other peoples (rather than being controlled) had a much greater chance at success and survival.

God’s transcendence continues to represent man’s image of himself as separate from and superior to nature, freed from the enslavement of nature’s biological programming, and apparently immune to the dangers posed by a polluted environment. We talk about Man and Nature as if they were two separate entities, rather than imaging a humanity within nature. But is this a true picture? Or wishful thinking? I think our cherished image of ourselves as a special species, as beings set apart, as the pinnacle of the evolutionary process has allowed us to exploit and poison earth with no thought as to the repercussions to our health and well being. This image is not only false, it also is a threat to our survival. However, we cannot seem to disentangle ourselves from our cultural programs which continue to tell us we are transcendent. If we continue down this path, we may soon find ourselves extinct –an experiment of nature gone terribly wrong. Therefore, as an environmentalist and as a member of this endangered species we call humanity, I find the whole notion of transcendence deeply troubling.

As a woman who has always had issues with authority and who celebrates diversity, I also have a problem with a God who is one and number 1. In the JCT, much is made of God’s oneness – a oneness which was greatly at odds with the many gods and goddesses of pagan societies. God’s oneness represents the viewpoint that our worldview is Number One. Only one worldview, ours – is correct. Within the JCT, there is no toleration for beliefs in other gods. This attitude is reflected in the hegemonic, colonialist nature of western culture. We’ve got it right; and it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world recognizes the error of its ways. And, if they don’t, we’ll lend them a hand.

God’s oneness also represents a strong cultural belief in the concentration of power in the executive – and respect for the authority which that concentration of power represents. Regardless of evidence which would lead us to doubt the wisdom of placing absolute trust in absolute power, our desire to want to trust authority figures is great. It is thus “unpatriotic” to question the authority of a president, disloyal to question the authority of a CEO, disrespectful to question the authority of a teacher or a parent, and outrageous to question the authority of science.

As to God’s maleness, it has created – and continues to create — endless problems for women. As a woman, I consider God’s maleness absolutely unacceptable. God’s maleness means that the standard for being human is the male human. Therefore, being born female in our society means never being recognized as fully human – and having to prove ourselves time and time again should we dare to enter the man’s world. Be that as it may, God’s maleness is so taken for granted and so deeply ingrained that we hardly even take notice of it – unless of course we are feminist theologians. And, for many, it seems positively unnatural to use anything other than the pronoun “he” in referring to God.

But to characterize the source of life as male and transcendent instead of female and immanent was hugely significant and aberrant in the pagan ANE. God, as male creator of the universe and sole source of all life, symbolically reflected the revolutionary scientific belief, held by Aristotle among others, that the male seed was the sole source of human life. The corollary to this belief was that woman’s womb was nothing more than an incubator. Perhaps this explains the latest Supreme Court ruling concerning women’s reproductive rights. (This belief has only relatively recently been scientifically disproven with the discovery of the ovum in 1827. Perhaps this scientific discovery gave the suffragettes the psychological boost they needed to fight for their rights. )

Thus, through the offices of God’s maleness, a now disproven scientific fact created a worldview in which the intrinsic biological and social value of the male was assumed, justifying and rationalizing male dominance in every sphere of human activity for over 2500 years. Perhaps it’s time to bring our wordview more in line with what we now know about reproductive biology. Symbolically, recognizing the significant biological role played by women in the survival and maintenance of the species would translate into recognizing the immense social worth of women and women’s work. Consider how the lives of children at home and in day care, the lives of the sick at home and in hospitals, and the lives of the elderly, at home and in nursing homes depend entirely on work traditionally associated with women. Our lives, our children’s lives, our parent’s lives are literally in the hands of women. Isn’t it time to acknowledge our worth?

So to answer my earlier question as to why it is so hard to make substantive changes in our behavior, it is hard because we see the world through a glass darkened by transcendent patriarchal monotheism. And it is no easy matter to initiate a culture-wide change in consciousness. For, if my hypothesis is correct that the human brain cannot function without a value system, then we cannot delete one system without having another to take its place. And if we delete the current value system, can we consciously and deliberately choose a replacement – or do we wait until the new one percolates up from the unconscious?

I think we can turbo-charge the whole transition process by becoming conscious of the flaws in our image of ourselves and making the appropiate changes. For example, in your mind’s eye, juxtapose the ideas of a human being (yourself) and nature. Do you image yourself as firmly rooted in this earth, interconnected with the other species of this earth – both plant and animal? Or do you see yourself floating hydrofoil-like, a few feet off the surface? If it is the latter, cool you jets and settle down. I promise you, your homecoming will be welcome and welcoming. Or say to yourself the word “Man” or humanity and see what image springs to mind. If it is always the image of a male human, try substituting a female and see how that affects you. You may be surprised at your mind’s resistance. But, it can be done. As for authority and hegemony and dominance and all that other stuff, would’t it be nice if we could just relax and not have to be number 1. Think about it. I do, everyday. Just ask my long suffering friends.

To conclude, the transcendent flagpole we’ve been sitting on for the past 2000 years is getting pretty wobbly. I recommend that we climb down from our airy perch and take our place in nature, rejoicing in being a part of such wonder and beauty and diversity. Through a growing consciousness – a sometimes painful awareness — of our newly discovered kinship with all things, we will develop an understanding at the deepest layers of our being that interdependence not dominance is the key to survival – that we, too, are part of the web of life.

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