• Eirenicole

Bad Theology Kills

Bad Theology Kills 2048 1365 Nicole

We are shaped by our theology. Whatever it is that any of us believes or disbelieves about god—any god—informs behavior, relationships, community governance, power differentials—and who gets to decide. Each set of beliefs shared by any community lays the groundwork for who can curate the crucial tenets included in that set of beliefs (usually collated into a central written form), and who are deemed incapable. And once this discrete knowledge-bearer(s) is ordained for the position, all (so-called legitimate) interpretive work, the terms of adherence to this theory of the divine and the consequences of not, are determined by this individual or limited set of overseers placed there by the very belief system they are given to superintend. Entrenched. Fixed. Immutable.

Our beliefs shape us. Your brain develops and grows with your body as it creates new neurologic pathways and connections, emphasizing some, etching deeper and still deeper grooves, reinforced by the punishment-reward signals dictated by perception and social engagement. Much of this is passed down, generation to generation, and perpetuated over countless millennia. To imagine a different way of thinking about those beliefs, let alone changing behavior, is excruciatingly difficult. It is hard work. As with overcoming a pernicious addiction, it would likely be a lifetime endeavor. It’s easier just to continue to think and behave in the ways that conform and accommodate the prevailing belief system.

The attempt to persuade anyone the importance of applying this level of intension to a belief so indelibly fixed in our collective psyche that it has shaped the very structure and chemistry of our brains, is daunting, in the least. One might say impossible. Still, we know from the collaborative work of physicians, behavioral scientists, anthropologist and philosophers, neurologists, theologians and psychedelic enthusiasts, that mindfulness practices do just that: change the structure of our brains.

We also learn from those who account for these things, that mindfulness practices create the conditions for simplicity, smoothing out the jagged edges of urgency, intensity. And in this way, the brain becomes more aware of the body, the breath inhales, inspires the numinous, and exhales the toxic poisons circulating within. In this way, we become more open to new ideas, and willing to cooperate and collaborate.

Mindfulness practice is a great leveler. It is also informed by the same belief system that has been used to cause the greatest harm.  

I do not write for the apologists. This is not an invitation to offer counter-theologies that are usually some variation on the narrow white western European straight male who has dominated, controlled the field for eons. I write this for those who have been injured by interpretive treatments of Scripture that justify the power of a few to wield as they deem appropriate (usually in the interest of their own power). I write to share out of my own experience, and theological training, Bible-language education, decades of study, reflection, mediation, conversation, praxis and practice. And I write this as one who has consistently—from the first time someone told me I could not fully participate in the image and likeness of the ‘He’-God because I was not in the ‘he’-form—been shamed into submission (okay, perhaps not so effectively the submission part, rather, the shame part).

I write this because I am also a Mental Health Professional and it is World Mental Health Day (Oct 10, 2021). And of all the ways humans are maneuvered into poor mental health, Religion by far has been the most egregious offender.

The Womanist theologian and preaching professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, Joy J. Moore, recently shared at the 2021 Northern Illinois synod of the ELCA PLC gathering in her, ‘Grounded in God’, on 9/20/21. She explained that most of us have been taught to find ourselves in the story of Scripture. We look to see where we fit in the narrative, but completely pass over the very first information recorded: “In the beginning… God.” God is the center of it all. God speaks everything into existence. God has a conversation with God’s self, the Many God, Elohim, about making an entity like Them. And the only time God said ‘oops’ is when God created the first human— “when God created the human alone.”

Moore continues to explain: “God created the perfect icon: it’s you and me.” And reminds those of us who share in Wesleyan faith traditions of John Wesley’s phrase, ‘We are Transcripts of the Trinity.’ We transcribe the Word of God, Word made flesh, by being flesh made Word.

Things went horribly wrong, however, as soon as one icon refocused—from God-as-Center to self-as-center (or anything other than God). The center of ‘Eve’s’ world was the tree that was prohibited. It only became the center because that is what Adam and Eve focused on. And it was there that “they began to doubt that they were icons of the Creator.” They thought they could “become more god-like than God-like.” Still, God always gives a way out. God went to them and promised they would have victory over this temptation.

The thing is, they didn’t see that what they understood as a curse was actually part of the promise. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” was a blessing and instruction for what they are to do in the entire word, not just in the garden. We forget that and become hyperfocused on the prohibition and being pushed out of the garden, when we were meant to leave it and enjoy the entirety of Creation in the first place.

This instinct to become hyperfocused, then, places a priority on the object of focus which removes the gaze off of God. Naming elements of the glorious diversity of creation as an expression of appreciation, and wonderment of the immense variety, devolved into naming each other, and claiming ownership over the named one. So began a new “normal of othering.”

Adam and Eve’s problem, Cain’s problem, Noah’s problem, “was that they wanted to make a name for themselves.” They wanted to form their own identity, ignoring the immense diversity and uniqueness of this kin-dom of Heaven on earth.

Moore concludes, in reference to chapter eleven of Genesis that, “Genesis is not a story of curse. It’s a story of God rewriting God’s story so that humanity can reenter the narrative we keep walking out of. Pentecost is every nation in its own language, its own peculiarity, hearing the testimony that there is a God. And this god is good. And this god hasn’t given up on Creation…. Jacob’s ladder is not a story of getting to heaven, but we are to recognize glimpses of heaven on the earth…. That’s were God promises to bring heaven, where God promises to show up.”

The theobrogians (Christena Cleveland’s brilliant coinage) have walked us out of the narrative and, though many would now deny it, place the blame of sin on Eve. What they keep breezing past is when the very first ‘othering’ occurred: when the first defined second and made possible ownership over a person tagged “wife.”

Because this is still a thing billions of years later, and the destructive evidence is exceedingly clear and prevalent, the work of becoming more like the Transcripts of the Trinity we are made to be is imperative and massive. The abuses, violence, crush of will and fullness of being of these icons that present with a female form stem from theology. Bad theology. And it is killing us!

It isn’t just killing the will and spirit of half the world’s population; it is taking the lives of many of us by the hand of zealous male relations or by our own despairing hand. And it is doing the same for those who present a male form by crushing the spirit of those who cannot live up to the false narrative the patriarchy peddles, or who won’t live it out and are derided for their trouble.

Bad theology kills. It’s in our politics, our governing bodies, our family systems, the toys in our supermarkets, our cinema, in our clothing—despite the fact that women have been “allowed” to wear pants for a while now, and despite the creative, authentic work of beautiful souls like Harry Styles, Alok Vaid-Menon, Megan Rapinoe and others promoting cross- and gender non-specific clothing. For the vast majority, it is uncomfortable at best, disgusting at worst, to see a hairy male form donning a flouncy, gauzy, pastel blouse with coordinating muscley leg-revealing skirt. Why?

And the most voted for answer is… “It’s not natural.” Which usually translates, “God did not make man to….” Or, “woman to….” Whatever it is that makes us uncomfortable, and we are not willing to examine the reason behind that discomfort, challenge what presuppositions lay behind that reaction, our go-to response is to justify it with a theological claim. Based on nothing in particular, but usually crafted around one translation of a discrete portion of text taken entirely out of context. The God-centric context of Creative intent for life to persist—and thrive. In glorious, infinite diversity.  

Recently, I read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth. This narrative focuses more on Joseph and his lineage, but the wording that describes Mary’s inception caught my attention. Mary was:

“found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

Found to be…“by from the Holy Spirit.”

The Spirit of God made Mary to become a physical form that wasn’t ‘natural.’ The Spirit of God, the One who birthed everything that exists through the One who came into being (of physical form) by this very woman—the Spirit made her to take on the form of one who is with child: pregnant. This very form—a pregnant human that is not bound (by the law of that time) to another superior (by that same law) human, is now defiled: separate from the community. And left to her own defenses—one of the most vulnerable conditions of that time: female, with no superior human ‘safeguarding’ her form (for the sole purpose of providing an heir), with a bastard on the way—a widow and orphan.

The Spirit of God created a condition that was an ultimate shame on the woman and all who call(ed) her kin; Israel, herself. God made Mary into this form, without the assistance of another human: a man (‘ish). Kinda like the first time this happened… though, a reversal….

God said, Let us ( ‘elohim, plural)  ‘asah (make—collaborate to create) ‘adam (the collective more-than-one human: humankind), in our image and likeness. So God (‘elohim, more than one) created ha  ‘adam (singular)—in the image and likeness of the Many-God. From this one form, God made this first human (who was made in the image and likeness of the Many-God) into a new form: more-than-one (i.e., pregnant), and not bound to another human. And this Many-God birthed, took from the side-middle-chamber (aka, womb, also translated ‘rib’, though, only here. ever.) And a second human came into being.

The Many-God, yet the One and Only God, is entirely everything that consists of God-like-ness. God is not divided. God is whole. God is the primal everything-good, goodness. God is entirely everything-love, Love. God is entirely male. God is entirely female. God is Progenitor and God is Incubator of life. God is Midwife. God is Laborer. God is Creator. Entirely.

Each human is made in the image and likeness of God—this God who is not divided, entirely consistent, and fully participator in all that issues from God’s very act and being.

These? principles? are consistently articulated and represented, throughout the scripture that we (by we, I mean those who recognize the current canon of scripture as informing our faith) say that we believe to be important to our faith, and inspired by this very Many-God-Who-Is-The-One-And-Only-God.

And then, the first human became overzealous, hyperfocused on this naming gig and did not recognize the same iconic character of the second human and decides to name this Transcript of the Trinity with a derivative of himself (‘ishah of ‘ish): Adam makes Eve into Other. They no longer identify as Image-bearers, icons of the Many-God: community, diverse. The one has made a superficial distinction respective to the second. And the first made himself to be the judge of that distinction.

God made humankind in God’s image, neqevah, woman, and, gever, man, God created them. Adam made wife into his image of self-made power and identity. Adam’s hyperfocused, gaze averted from God, he created broken relationship, severed partnership, disbursed community: sin.

I can theologically articulate all the ways society has perpetuated misogyny, the insanity of ingrained otherness, and used Religion to cement and adjudicate its perpetuation. Leaders can enact laws that protect women and any who do not identify as straight white men, and even men in general. Sensitivity assemblies may now be compulsory. But if we cannot come together and learn from effective change-leaders like as Alicia Garza and the Black Lives Matter movement in support of systemically changing the ways everyone (male and female) thinks of human beings who bear the female form, attitudes and perspectives will never really be altered. We will be left with rules and laws that must be followed, programs that must be implemented—and resented.

Oh, sure, many will attempt to soften or even hide resentment (if they want any sort of intimacy with said person of female form, or funding from entities that employ quotas). But for men to decide they do not have a right to their opinion or position or neglect? What will it take for that to happen? How can this way of being—that has occurred since the first icons chose to make themselves the center of God’s narrative instead of God, the Source of it all—be shifted? Even a little?

When it is still so blatantly resisted: “So far this year [2021], 12 states have enacted bans that ‘restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism….’” What are we to do? Is anyone else as tired as I am of the shit we’ve made of the community of humankind in all its diversity and creative potential-in-relationship?

The unfathomable reality of this Many-God who IS Love, is that this God is always only interested in recreation. And immeasurably patient. And persistent.

“But if the LORD creates (bara‘) something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men (‘ish) have despised the LORD.” (Num16:30)

I see the ground opening….

            Still … “the LORD will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel, and will set them in their own land; and aliens will join them and attach themselves to the house of Jacob.” (Is14:1) And, God has “loved you with an everlasting love.” (Jer31.3) And will gather everyone, and everyone will have enough, and will dance together, and share food together, and work together—everyone from everywhere in all their glorious diversity!

Because, “the Lord has created a new thing on the earth: a woman encompasses a man.” Neqevah tesovev (savav) gaver (gever). (Jer31.22) Redemption. We return to the beginning. From the earth (ha-adamah) God shapes and delivers a human (ha-adam). And from the first, a second is shaped and birthed. Each are icons of God in their own right, and in their relationship, community, live out the iconic creative instinct.

And neqevah tesovev gaver is God recreating. Again, and again. So, when will we all walk back into God’s new-every-morning narrative? How do we change this other narrative that reaches back to the very beginning?

First, we breathe. Notice our breath. Inhale the activating oxygen and exhale the pollution. And we open our eyes. We look into the eyes of God and take in that gaze, bask in the countenance that is only always oriented toward us. And we look again at each other with that same gaze.

A very helpful tool given us by our LGBTQIA+ community is a mindfulness of pronouns. When we take a few extra moments to know a person a little more by inquiring about preferred pronouns (vs making an assumption), we’ve opened up a door to hearing, we’ve taken a posture of listening, oriented toward each other by love. And out of this gorgeous gift, it becomes easier to think of God as more than male. Thank God!

When we gaze on each other and see the other as also bearing the image and likeness of God, and without assumptions based on appearance alone, we begin to see even God more clearly. Just this one shift in the way we interact with one another has the potential for creating, recreating a significant shift in our theologies. Because bad theology kills. I, for one, want a theology of creation and recreation, life and living it fully. Will you join me in making something new?

            Breathe in: Spirit—the same Spirit we all share

            Breathe out: all need for controlling, dominating the narrative.

And make an intention to see others in God’s narrative with one action. Start with pronouns.

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About the author

Nicole

Nicole Oliver Snyder’s expertise lies in the areas of leadership, gender issues, and mindfulness practice as it affects both. Leadership, particularly in an urban setting, requires community-relations skills, and an ability to clearly convey justice issues as they relate to felt, spiritual ones. Dr. Snyder is author of Leading Together: Mindfulness and the Gender Neutral Zone, and specializes in teaching mindfulness leadership development, formative spirituality, counseling, and Old Testament theology (emphasis on justice issues). She has a diverse background in international community-relations work combined with volunteer work in multi-ethnic communities, and with local institutions. She is an ordained Clergy; holds a BS in Human Development and Family Studies, w/Education Certificate, an MA-Counseling, MDiv Equiv., holds a Doctor of Ministry and Advanced Certification in Formative Spiritual Direction, and is a Licensed Professional Counselor (MI).

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