Friday, January 8, 2010

Mary Daly, Feminist Theologian, Died This Week

Feminist theologian Mary Daly died this week. While she is no longer one of my favorite theologians, she shaped my thinking immensely at an earlier time. Yesterday, after I learned of Daly's death, I pulled my copy of Beyond God the Father off the shelf. I spent the rest of the night marvelling that the young woman I was who agreed so passionately with Mary Daly should find herself a faithful Lutheran, here at midlife.

I flipped through the book, looking at passages which moved me (my younger self was kind enough to write notes in the margins, so I don't have to guess). Here's one: "A third idol . . . is the God who is the Judge of 'sin,' who confirms the rightness of the rules and the roles of the reigning system, maintaining false consciences and self-destructive guilt feelings. Women have suffered both mentally and physically from this deity, in whose name they have been informed that birth control and abortion are unequivocally wrong, that they should be subordinate to their husbands, that they must be present at rituals and services in which men have all the leadership roles and in which they are degraded not only by enforced passivity but also verbally and symbolically" (p. 31).

Wow. I wrote that word in the margin, but I didn't mean it ironically. When I read this book in the 80's, it spoke to me; I really felt victimized by a patriarchal religion, even though the Lutheran expression of it is far from harsh.

Now I would say wow, as in, hmm, that's really not my experience these days. I'm lucky to be part of a church that values women and anyone else with leadership skills (gay, lesbian, transgendered . . .). I'm lucky that my pastor and the books I read don't present God as that cosmic judge waiting for us to do wrong so that he can smite us. The God we worship is a loving, aching God, a co-creator, a deity with a vision for healing the world, a vision that needs us.

My church still has some ways to go towards gender-neutral language, especially when it comes to our expressions of the deity. God is still a he, rarely a she. But the church is wrestling: changing the language of the hymns, making our references to humanity more inclusive. Some of our more daring artists have experimented with the idea of God's gender, and haven't been shunned.

Mary Daly's anger fueled my own and sent me into a search for something better. I flirted with Goddess religions and other pagan expressions. In the end, I missed the church of my childhood, which wasn't the oppressive church that other people might have suffered. I missed potluck dinners and people singing, even when they couldn't carry a tune. I missed the liturgical year, which gave a different shape to my days. I missed having an easy way to work for peace and justice (the church plans the events, I show up to do my part). I returned to church.

I'm grateful to all the people who listened to me say what must have been dreadful sounding things and who still speak to me. I am more grateful than I can express to all the people who endured my 19 year old self, who was just as judgmental as the worst of the religious traditions, and who still love me and spend time with me on holidays. I'm grateful to the elders in my life who let me explore other traditions while reminding me of what is valuable in my own tradition.

And I'm also grateful to Mary Daly and other feminist theologians, who opened us up to new possibilities. We've rediscovered all sorts of female-centered aspects of our faith, due in large part to these writers. We've gone back to the sacred texts to explore the feminine face of God, which is there but hasn't been emphasized (for example, the idea of God as knitter who creates us in our mother's wombs). We've gone back to translate the sacred texts for ourselves, often literally, from the ancient languages, to see what they really said--and we have been shocked and surprised.

Thank you, Mary Daly. Well done, good and faithful servant of liberation (although I know you'd hate that servant language!)

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