16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
In Her Image, In His Image
Presenter:Rev. Amy Russell
Sermon Date:Sun, 08/13/2006
Emily was eight years old when she started Sunday school at the Presbyterian church at the corner of her street. She liked to dress up in her pretty blue party dress with the white starched collar that her mother let her wear to church. She felt pretty and special going to church. But she also felt a little nervous about going to church. She knew that church was where God lived and she knew that God loved her. But she also knew that God expected a lot from her. He expected her to be good at home and not leave her room a mess and to help her mother. He also expected her to do well at school and to remember to help her little brother whenever her mother asked. Sometimes, Emily felt she wasn’t as good as God wanted her to be and that made her scared. Maybe God would stop loving her.
Emily grew up seeing God as a stern but loving father. She imaged God as an older and wiser person but very much like her father. This father was sometimes loving and sometimes unforgiving. She felt the world she lived in was ruled by this God, who sometimes gave her great gifts and sometimes took these things away for no apparent reason. But she felt the reason was due to her inability to be good enough. She never quite figured out how to be good enough.
Many people who grew up in theistic religions, particularly Judaic, Muslim, or Christian religions, grew up with images of God as a male authority figure. God is often described in the prayers and liturgies of these faiths using terms such as King, Ruler, Father, Judge. Descriptions of this patriarchal figure might call him All Knowing, Wise, Judging, Loving and Forgiving, or sometimes angry and unforgiving.
Language that is used in worship in many Judaic and Christian settings includes male images of this God. We hear petitions such as this one from the Jewish Prayer book:
Our Father, Our King, we have no King but You.
David Ariel says in his book “What do Jews Believe?” that this masculine portrait of God is emphasized particularly in the High Holy Days liturgy. He says “It has led many people to a distorted image of god as a stern, unforgiving male figure which carries with it all the negative associations of some male stereotypes.” The image carries the feeling of a strict but compassionate male parent.
We read the stories in the Hebrew Testament where God is described in his encounters with Abraham as a male figure who comes to visit, sits down, has a meal, talks with Abraham, and eventually identifies himself to Abraham as the Lord. During this meal, God tells Sara that she will be with child, even though she is of an advanced age. Sara laughs at this, at first not understanding it. When she realizes that this man she is talking and laughing with is God, she becomes afraid. Like she would with a male ruler of the day. The male God has power and authority over her and she laughed at him. No wonder she is afraid.
There are other stories where Jacob meets up with God in a dream at the top of a ladder where he is described again as a man who tells Jacob that he is Abraham’s God who promised Abraham that he would prosper and found a great nation. He repeats this promise to Jacob and a king might do. He even promises him the land of Caanan. No wonder the Israelites feel entitled! They were promised this land by this ancient powerful King, who holds ultimate authority.
When women grow up seeing God as exclusively male, that puts them in a position of being not “made in the image of God”. It makes women unlike God- who is seen as powerful and authoritative. And if these images of power and authority are male, it makes the possibility of power unattainable. If God is all goodness, all light, all wisdom, all power, then who am I as a woman if God is male? It creates these attributes as masculine attributes, not within the pervue of women. Carroll Saussy, a feminist theologian, says that the male image of God makes God “like the other but not like me.”
Feminist theologians say that putting faith in powerful images that reflect one’s own gender can result in stronger self-esteem. Saussy points to the ideologies that one creates about life and one’s place in it as one of the foundations of self esteem throughout life. In other words, when we see an image of power and authority that looks like us, we translate that image into possibilities for ourselves. When those images don’t exist in our experience, we have difficulty creating scenarios in which we might be powerful.
One of the difficulties that men as well as women have described with growing up with patriarchal divine images is that if they had difficult relationships with their fathers, this automatically transferred into their feelings about any God figure they may have been taught about. What they learned about male authority figures in the family, often became transferred to their thoughts about God. If they were abused by their father, God became someone you could not trust because you couldn’t trust male authority.
Images of Goddess create for women a symbol of women’s power and sacredness. When women can image a feminine divine, they can begin to see themselves as divine, themselves as having great spiritual power in the world. Starhawk, the spiritual writer, tells us that that the image of the Goddess allows women to see themselves as “holy, our aggression as healthy, our anger as purifying, and our power to nurture and create, but also to limit and destroy when necessary, as the very force that sustains all life.” (“The Spiral Dance”, Starhawk, from Cries of the Spirit, Sewell) Starhawk also tells us that feminine images of the divine are important for men. Men are shown images of God as pure male omniscience and perfection and try to identify with a role model that they could never copy. They are shown an image of a powerful male who has no sexual drive and wonder if this is what the are supposed to emulate. Hence, the Catholic priesthood and all it’s attendant misplaced power. Sublimated sex in exchange for unlimited power over others is the male God image that is exalted by the Catholic theology. Needless to say, it has not created a healthy model for men in the Church.
Let us imagine for a moment some images of deities in other cultures and religions that let in the light for creation of positive self esteem in women and others.
A few months ago, Misty lent me a book that I promptly put on a table in my office and forgot about. It was one of those synchronous events when searching through stacks of books the other day, I came upon the book called Discovering Kwan Yin: Buddhist Goddess of Compassion. As I picked it up and sat down to read, I realized that this is what I had been looking for- a feminine image of the divine that didn’t act subservient to other deities like the Virgin Mary. Kwan Yin is an Asian deity, originating in India as a male deity from Buddhist mythology, she was brought to China and morphed into a female goddess. While there is no evidence of a significant goddess worship ritual in China, there have been female deities in certain provinces. In Taoism, there is a mother figure who was a deity whose womb contained the cosmos. Luckily, these feminine divine images were not destroyed by later Confucian influences and Kwan Yin was resurrected in the eighth century as a goddess of compassion. Interestingly, the image of Kwan Yin is not static. She is known to come into people’s lives in various disguises depending on the need of the person at the time. You may have seen statues of the goddess with a thousand hands which is one of her personifications, and sometimes she is seen as a white robed figure riding a dragon. Different images of this goddess make her enigmatic, but accessible. We can imagine her materializing in our lives just when we might need her.
Kwan Yin’s name means “She who harkens to the cries of the world” which describes how she is supposed to arrive as people chant out her name when they are in distress. She is one of the ultimate Buddhist Boddhisattvas- which is a being that delays their own enlightenment in order to come back to the suffering of this world to help others.
In this book, stories are told of how this feminine deity becomes a touchstone for women and men who could not relate to a punishing male God. MaryLou Ledwell was a Catholic woman growing up with images of Jesus and Virgin Mary as intermediaries to God. She felt God was distant and not available to her. She encountered a statue of Kwan Yin in her fifties and was told about the powerful but compassionate feminine goddess. She felt a connection to Kwan Yin immediately. Kwan Yin felt to her like a powerful friend with whom she could communicate without feeling that she was a God who controlled her life. MaryLou practices her meditation in front of an altar with a likeness of Kwan Yin. She says she isn’t praying to her, she is letting her become a part of her spiritual life. For MaryLou, Kwan Yin is a sacred friend who supports her in her spiritual journey, not a god that interferes with her destiny. This feminine deity becomes a symbol of strength within, as well as compassion coming from the universe. For someone like MaryLou who grew up with a distant male God who judged her, Kwan Yin provides her with spiritual sustenance coming in a form that she can shape to her own needs.
Now let’s imagine not a feminine deity or a male deity, but a world view that describes a universe that is unified as One. Imagine if you grew up as a Taoist being told that everything you see is a part of the Oneness, including yourself. Everything is sacred, everything contains energy and everything has power. If you were taught to be a Taoist, you’d see a world view of the universe as constantly changing. As a child growing up in a Taoist faith, you wouldn’t imagine the universe being controlled by a being with arms and legs and human emotions, but instead you’d imagine that the Oneness of the Universe often manifests itself in duality- yin and yang. You’d see the duality in male and female, in light and dark, in good and evil.
The images of the powers in the universe given to a person growing up Taoist would look more like a circle than like an anthropomorphic figure. The circle representing the endless void which is the world could also be represented by an empty blank circle called Yang which signifies the possible activity in the world and by a black filled in circle called Yin which represents the inactivity. When these two possibilities are shown as part of the whole, you see the image of the two half circles with wavy lines, one half blank and one half black. This is the well known Yin/Yang symbol.
As a Chinese person in ancient times, you might believe that the universe was made of energy not the material world that we see. Everything was made up of this vital force called “chi”. All of Chinese philosophy, medicine, and art was based around this fundamental concept. You would have been taught that when you died the chi that you really were merged with the universe and you became one again, which is what you really were all the time.
How we see the world, how it moves and changes, what controls it, what place we have in it, how joyous it is, and how deep the sorrow- this view we hold in our eyes and our hearts is built slowly over our lives, one drop at a time. It starts with what we are taught as a child. The language that is used to describe the world- God’s children, God loves us, Allah is almighty, Love the Lord, your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might, He’s got the whole world in His hands- all the stories and images that were painted for us as children are burned inside us a way of looking at the world.
Recognizing how these faith structures can create negative self esteem or bring confusing destructive views about the world allows us to create for our children a new face for their religious education. In our classrooms, we teach our children about how different people see the world differently. We tell them stories about God and Jesus, but explain that these are stories that some people believe are real and others see as just stories. We teach them about Buddhism and the seeking for enlightenment. Native American stories with their love for the earth are shared. Muslim traditions and customs are explored.
The emphasis in our religious education is on the respect for each individual’s personal spiritual journey. Respect and caring for one another is an important fundamental in our classrooms. Being fair and listening to others, using the democratic process, being aware and involved in the justice of the world. And caring for our earth. All of these are the significant values that underlie the foundation of our religious faith.
Our feelings of self-esteem, of our own and other’s power, and our feelings of safety and comfort all relate to these early religious images we were taught. When we recreate the structure of these images, we can create a world view of our own. We can decide if we want to accept a world view with a deity with human characteristics- a God who slightly resembles the parents we had or authority figures we accepted. Or we can decide on a world view that describes a universe of our own choosing- a world that can offer us perfect love perhaps. Totally unconditional love or at least a universe that gives us freedom to search for that love and acceptance.
In our Sunday services, we sometimes have mediations or prayers with language that might feel uncomfortable to some of you. My sermons try to present different faith viewpoints, but of course, this is all filtered by my own viewpoint. So, I’m sure there are times for all of you, when your world view seems at odds with what you may hear from the pulpit- from me or a lay leader. But the beauty of our Unitarian Universalist principles is that each world view is respected as valid. Whether you hate God language, or love God language, or whether you find Goddess images as too New Age, and wish we’d talk more about social justice or whether you think there’s just too much Buddhism being thrown about these days- you know that your beliefs are respected here and your input to our community is valued.