Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Early Christians and the Feminine Element

Given some sensitivity enhancement following the reading of America’s Women, I discovered some interesting history related to women’s role in the early Christian communities. The source of this new insight was Elaine Pagel’s book The Gnostic Gospels.

Pagels discusses the available documents relating to writings created in the first two centuries after Christ. They present a picture of a Christian community harboring a wide array of beliefs as to what Jesus’ message was and thus what it meant to be a Christian. One gets the impression that Jesus’ followers were left with no clear path forward after his death, unleashing a Darwinian clash of opposing notions. Many people wrote "gospels," often attributing them to various apostles, in order to promote a point of view. Each seemed able to produce sayings attributed to Jesus that supported their position.

Simplifying matters somewhat, for the purposes of this brief comment, one could say that by the time of the critical second century, there were two views as to how Christianity should be practiced. One, the ultimate winner, was what the author referred to as the "orthodox" view. This path insisted on a strict, almost military, rule of discipline and chain of command. The fundamental tenet was that Jesus passed on his legacy to the apostles to be interpreters of the "faith." All church leaders and all church decisions then had to emanate from this apostolic succession. This would become the Roman Catholic Church. It would treat any alternate view as heresy and try to destroy any written document it did found objectionable.

People who chose to follow the second path might loosely be referred to as "Gnostics." These formed diverse groups who had similar beliefs to the orthodox Christians, but who believed in a more personal interaction with their God. There was much emphasis on a spiritual communion between an individual and God leading to greater levels of enlightenment. This view was often in conflict with the orthodox contention that the apostolic successors were the intermediaries between God and the people. The Gnostic approach has some similarities to that of current evangelical sects.

The point of all this is to note that the two views allowed for quite different roles for women in society and in the practice of religion. It turns out that Genesis Chapters 1 and 2 can be interpreted quite differently. Chapter 2 is the text emphasized by the orthodox view—the traditional Hebrew interpretation: God created man (male animal), and from the male created the female, clearly giving the impression of the female as a subspecies. Now consider the wording in Chapter 1.
"And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…..So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them."One should be moved to wonder who is/are "us," and what does "our image" mean. Pagals points out that there were those who believed that the God of the Hebrews was so ornery and capricious that it was difficult to associate Jesus with him. Genesis Chapter 1 provided a possible resolution of this dilemma by indicating there were really two aspects to God—or perhaps two persons. Given the wording, there must be a male and female aspect or person.

One could go off in many different directions from this starting point, including the notion that the female aspect/person must be the dominant. According to Pagels, many Gnostic Christians were sympathetic to the Chapter 1 interpretation, allowing for a much more equal treatment of women.
"We can see, then, two very different patterns of sexual attitudes emerging in orthodox and gnostic circles. In simplest form, many gnostic Christians correlate their description of God in both masculine and feminine terms with a complementary description of human nature. Most often they refer to the creation account of Genesis 1, which suggests an equal or androgynous human creation. Gnostic Christians often take the principle of equality between men and women into the social and political structures of their communities. The orthodox pattern is strikingly different: it describes God in exclusively masculine terms, and typically refers to Genesis 2 to describe how Eve was created from Adam, and for his fulfillment. Like the Gnostic view, this translates into social practice: by the late second century, the orthodox community came to accept the domination of men over women as the divinely ordained order, not only for social and family life, but also for the Christian churches."How fascinating is the study of history! The orthodox community had the better game plan, thus they won, but so many things could have turned out so differently.

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