Monday, December 26, 2011

Forgotten Women in Church History: Julian of Norwich

The Christian hermit is a well-known medieval image: a person who sought solitude and prayerful contemplation beyond even what the monastic life could offer. In the early centuries of the church, hermits, both male and female, often lived in complete seclusion in the desert, near other hermits for protection but entirely away from civilization. In fact, female ascetics who lived this way outnumbered males by a ratio of two to one.

Desert asceticism declined as Christianity pushed northwards. While male hermits often chose caves or huts in the forest, female hermits, for their own safety, inclined more towards solitary rooms attached to cathedrals or churches, where the ascetic could have complete privacy but also the protection of the religious community. Women who lived in this way were called “anchoresses.”

Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) was an anchoress who lived in a small cell built into the wall of St. Julian’s church at Norwich, England. She took the name of the church as her own; her real name is unknown. Very little is known about her life. When she was thirty she became ill to the point of death-- the last rites were even said over her. But on her deathbed she began experiencing a series of visions focused on the Passion of the Christ and the love of God for humanity. She recovered and wrote a book about her visions, her experiences in prayer, and her theology. Revelations of Divine Love is considered to be the first book in English written by a woman.

Julian became well-known as a counselor, and many came to hear her wisdom and receive her advice. Though she called herself “a simple, unlettered creature,” she was actually familiar with the writings of theologians and was more learned than she was prepared to admit. Like many women of her time, she found it was not acceptable for a woman to claim learning for herself or any basis from which to teach-- but she countered those who criticized her writings, because as a woman she was not allowed to preach, by saying that she was not preaching, but only being a witness to the light she had received.

Julian is remarkable in that she was possibly the first Roman Catholic writer to conceive of God as both Father and Mother. She wrote:

“As truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother. . . I understood three ways of looking at motherhood in God: the first is the creating of our human nature; the second is His taking of our human nature (and there commences the motherhood of grace); the third is motherhood of action (and in that is a great reaching outward, by the same grace, of length and breadth and of height and of depth without end) and all is one love. (Ch. 59)

The mother can give her child such from her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with Himself; and He does it most graciously and most tenderly with the Blessed Sacrament which is the Precious Food of true life. And with all the sweet Sacraments He supports us most mercifully and graciously. . . This fair lovely word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so kind in itself, that it can not truly be said of anyone nor to anyone except of Him and to Him who is true Mother of life and of all. To the quality of motherhood belongs natural love, wisdom, and knowledge — and this is God….The kind, loving mother who is aware and knows the need of her child protects the child most tenderly as the nature and state of motherhood wills. (Ch. 60)”

Julian was not saying that God was female, but like Hildegard of Bingen, whom I wrote about here, Julian elevated womanhood by showing how the nature of God can be seen to include both male and female attributes, supporting the understanding that both male and female are made in God’s image. Jennifer A. Hudson summarizes:

“If women potentially share in the awesome creative and life-sustaining power of the Godhead and, likewise, the Godhead shares in the creative and life-sustaining power of women, then Christ as Mother reflects a gender-balanced nature within the Godhead, as He became a man through His incarnation. Moreover, Julian distinctly refers to Christ as ‘God our Mother,’ yet at the same time employs the use of the pronoun ‘He.’ [Julian’s understanding of] God fully encompasses masculine and feminine qualities.”
Jennifer A. Hudson, Medieval Forum.

Julian was never formally canonized but is commemorated in the Catholic Church on May 13 each year. Six centuries after her death, she was proclaimed “the greatest theologian for our time” by respected writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton. If you have ever heard the quote: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” you have heard the words of Julian of Norwich as she entrusted her fears for the world she lived in, to the God of love.


Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present, Tucker and Liefeld, Zondervan Publishing House (1987), p. 152-153.

Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature

Lectionary: Resources of the Episcopal Church

Christian Classics Ethereal Library

Biography by James Kiefer

New World Encyclopedia

Julian’s writings on the “Motherhood of God.”

Medieval Forum

About Julian of Norwich

Sunday, December 18, 2011


This time of year I get really busy. There’s shopping to do, holiday cooking and baking, Christmas cards, gifts to wrap and ship, and of course the exactly right Christmas tree (always a Douglas fir at our house) must be found and cut down at a U-cut tree farm by the whole family. I love living in the Pacific Northwest, where Christmas trees are grown for the whole country. It means we can cut our own fresh tree every year without paying a fortune.

Sometimes I long for the days when I was a kid, with nothing to do at Christmas but wait for it to come. But I still love Christmas. Sitting in the dark just looking at the sparkling tree glistening with tinsel and colored lights, my husband’s arm around me as we listen to carols on the stereo, fills me with that indescribable glow that’s one part anticipation, one part family warmth, one part a sense of peace and one part chocolate chip cookies.

I remember how magic Christmas was when I was little and believed Santa was going to come down the chimney. I always left some cookies out for him, plus a little treat for his reindeer too. When I stopped believing in Santa, there were some years when Christmas felt-- well, empty. It was fun getting gifts and all, but when Christmas had been magic, it was a real let-down when suddenly it wasn’t anymore. The wonder was gone, and with it, a lot of the joy.

I never said “Bah! Humbug!” But deep in my heart, part of me said, “Ho, hum.” All the presents were-- well, when it came right down to it, they were just more stuff. And Christmas was a fun day, but still it was just another day. The rest of me convinced myself to be happy with my gifts and grateful to be with my family; but there was this disappointment. Why did I have to grow up and lose the magic and wonder?

I shared earlier, on my birthday post, how I became a Christian at the age of 15. One of the most amazing things about that was how the next year at Christmas, the magic was back. And the wonder was stronger than ever. It’s hard to put into words what Christmas has been for me since, and is for me now.

When the lights go out, and the tree is twinkling in the dark-- or when I go outside and stare up at the frosty stars in the chilly night sky-- I think about the light of the world coming to the world, shining in the darkness, and the darkness not overcoming it. “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.” That son was the Word, who was with God and who was God, and who was in the beginning with God. How could the Source and Foundation of all being become one of us? How could the bright center of the universe live and walk and breathe and die here with us? It’s astonishing, really, in ways I can hardly express.

But I like to think that for one instant that night, the world was silent in breathless amazement-- and then a baby's cry rang out over the roofs of Bethlehem.

Christmas has a weight and depth in my mind and heart that it didn’t have even when I was a child-- for the story of the baby Jesus was to me then just a pretty tale and a lovely song my mother sang to me. Now it’s more than magic-- it’s a miracle, and it is recreated every year by the sparkle of lights, the smell of pine, the taste of cookies, and the anticipatory gleam of those shiny packages that I know will make me happy watching my loved ones opening them-- and my loved ones happy watching me.

This is my last post till after the big day. I’ve got lots and lots still to do. But I hope that however you celebrate Christmas, and even if you don’t celebrate it at all, you will feel a little bit of “peace on earth, good will towards men” as the season turns from darkness back to light.

Merry Christmas. Or Happy Holidays. Greetings of the Season. Whatever it is for you, be blessed this holy week.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

What Galatians 3:28 Cannot Mean

(NOTE: I'm going to write today in terms of blunt logic. If I come across as harsh or "unwomanly," please remember that it was Aristotle, and not Christ, who denied logic to women. Nothing I say is to be construed as an attack on anyone. I am merely taking a certain reading of a certain portion of Scripture to its inherent conclusions, to see if it makes sense.
- KR Wordgazer)
Galatians 3:28 reads: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is not male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Many Christians read this verse in a very limited sense, saying that in order to reconcile it with such “clear” restrictive passages as 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, we have to understand the above verse as applying only to our standing before God in salvation. We are all the same at the foot of the cross, the saying goes, but in the church and in the home, God has set forth male authority.

Galatians 3:28 cannot mean that gender is not important to what men and women can do in the church. So they say.
A man involved in a conversation on a blog I was reading put it this way: being “in Christ” is one thing, but in our everyday living, in our homes and church congregations, male and female roles are defined by God as separate. Only men may lead the congregation. Only men may lead their homes. Women may teach other women or children, but they may not lead or teach men. And yet, he assured me, these “separate roles” are still “equal.” Men are not superior to women, and women are not inferior. They are equal. They only have different “roles.” Somehow it escaped him that the “roles” are completely, irrevocably and unchangingly unequal, and that being permanent and tied to one’s personhood at birth, they are not really “roles” at all. They are castes.

I keep asking myself this question: why do Christians who believe like this have to keep insisting that they do not believe men are superior and women are inferior? Is it not because everything they teach and practice contradicts this idea? Men are not superior– but they are leaders and in authority by divine right. Women are not inferior– but they are to be subordinate to men without escape. Where is the equality, then? In name only. It’s a word to make us all feel better, and nothing more.
Did Paul really mean that in Christ there is not male and female, but in the church male authority and female subordination is to be carefully observed? So does that mean the church is in Christ? Or not? Does being in Christ only happen when we get to heaven?

What, then, do we do with verses like this one?

“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10; Emphasis added.)
The “good works” must be spiritual, heavenly works only, and we are exempted from such earthly good works as feeding the poor or visiting the sick. If being “in Christ” when it comes to “there is not male and female” has no practical bearing on what males and females can or can't do every day in their churches, then how can being “in Christ” have any practical bearing on what Christians do in any part of their lives?

And if this earthly-heavenly split applies to male and female, does it not also apply to Jew and Greek and to slave and free? Paul mentions them all in the same passage. Was Paul saying, “In Christ there are no racial distinctions, but in the church we’d better make sure the races stay properly separated”? Was Paul saying, “In Christ there is neither slave nor free, but in the church we’d better keep class distinctions intact and make sure everyone knows their proper place”? If this is what Paul really meant, then earlier in Galatians 2:11, why did he rebuke Peter for not eating with the Gentiles? Peter was only observing the distinctions he had learned, in a gathering of the church.

But if this is not what Paul meant, then how could he have meant the opposite when it comes to race and economic status, from what he meant when it comes to gender? No racial distinctions in the church, and no economic distinctions either– but we must keep the gender distinctions as long as we live on earth!

Does that make any sense?

Unless that makes sense-- then that is what Galatians 3:28 cannot mean.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Is the Bible a "Toxic" Book?

As I mentioned in my last post on the doctrine of accommodation, I find it very interesting how often non-Christians and strict literalist Christians agree on what the Christian Bible (Old and New Testaments) actually says-- and how often I disagree with both of them.

I have heard atheists often talk about how the Bible is an abysmal failure when it comes to morality and ethics-- particularly when it comes to issues like slavery, tribalism and patriarchy, all of which they say the Bible supports.

I have seen Bible literalists live lives of rigid, spiritually abusive dysfunction-- and heard them claim that the only reason I’m not living like they do is that I’m “lukewarm,” that I only want “Christianity lite” and am unwilling to take the Bible seriously.

And I have had people who were once strict literalist Bible followers but have become atheists, tell me that the basic teachings of the Bible are destructive and harmful. They have told me that the reason they had to leave Christianity is that they followed the teachings of the Bible to their logical conclusions. Christianity, they say, is a toxic religion, and the only way to practice it without toxicity is to ignore the toxic teachings of the Bible.

And yet (once I left behind the strict Christian sect I was once part of) I have found it possible to remain a Christian and to continue to take the Bible seriously-- and I don’t believe it’s by ignoring the parts of it I don’t like. I have found peace and strength in Christ and healing in the pages of the Bible. Perhaps I should be mistrusting my own experience? And yet it is my experience, and no less valid than anyone else’s.

So here’s the question:

Are those of us who follow a gentler version of Christianity really just deceiving ourselves about the real truth of what our religion is about? Are we not following Christ’s instructions wholeheartedly, and thus escaping the destructiveness of our religion by not “doing it properly”? Is the Bible, when it is taken seriously and followed as Christians believe (or should believe) it is meant to be followed, really a toxic book that will lead inexorably to either a life of misery and fear, or to self-preservation through ultimately rejecting the whole faith package?

In answer, I’d like to look first at two underlying assumptions made by non-Christians and by strict “purist” Christians, that are at their roots basically the same foundational idea. This is the basic window through which many people see Christianity and the Bible, without in fact noticing the window at all. We don’t tend to notice the things we look through-- we notice what we’re looking at. Because of this, Christians and non-Christians alike end up with the same idea of what the Bible is about-- and following the Bible in this way is seen as the obvious and only way to practice serious Christianity.

So here are the two related assumptions:

Non-Christian Assumption: If there were a God and the Bible were really God‘s book, God would have made sure the people He spoke to in the Bible understood that slavery, tribalism, patriarchy and so on are wrong. The Bible would, in effect, have taught the original peoples who received the writings, to think the way we do now about morality and social ethics.

Christian Assumption: The Bible tells us about Jesus, of course, and how He died for our sins-- but the main point of the Bible is to be a guidebook on how best to live. Jesus is our perfect example of obedience to God, and the Bible, if we read it carefully, will reveal to us God’s instructions for how to live in every area of life.

But are these correct assumption to make?

I’m not going to tackle the question of whether there is a God or not, here. But from the perspective of belief in God-- is it appropriate to say that the nature of the Biblical revelation is an impartation of morality and social ethics, and that since it doesn’t impart these things as we think it should, it cannot be anything other than a primitive, human book?

Is it appropriate to say that the basic nature of the Bible is to be a divine guidebook of instructions on how to live in each area of our lives?

What if the Bible is, fundamentally, neither of these things?

Theologian N.T. Wright, in his sermon-essay “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” puts it like this:

“[W]e have come to the whole Bible, looking for particular answers to particular questions. And we have thereby made the Bible into something which it basically is not. . . . . People treat it as an unsorted edition of Calvin’s Institutes, the Westminster Confession, the UCCF Basis of Faith, or the so-called ‘Four Spiritual Laws’. But to treat the Bible like that is, in fact, simply to take your place in a very long tradition of Christians who have tried to make the Bible into a set of abstract truths and rules . . . .

“If we are not careful, the appeal to ‘timeless truths’ . . . distorts the Bible itself, making it into the sort of book it manifestly is not. . . . My conclusion, then, is this: that the regular views of scripture and its authority which we find not only outside but also inside evangelicalism fail to do justice to what the Bible actually is—a book, an ancient book, an ancient narrative book. They function by tuning that book into something else, and by implying thereby that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book. This is a low doctrine of inspiration, whatever heights are claimed for it. . . .

“The writings written by these people, thus led by the Spirit, are . . . mostly narrative; and we have already run up against the problem how can a story, a narrative, be authoritative? Somehow, the authority which God has invested in this book is an authority that is wielded and exercised through the people of God telling and retelling their story as the story of the world, telling the covenant story as the true story of creation. Somehow, this authority is also wielded through his people singing psalms. Somehow, it is wielded (it seems) in particular through God’s people telling the story of Jesus.”
[Emphases in original.]

This change in approach to Biblical understanding is about more than just making sure to read the Bible according to historical and literary context; I have talked to ex-Christians who told me that they did do careful research to find the original authorial intent-- but still found themselves in a misery-inducing way of practicing their faith that they eventually had to abandon or be destroyed by.

It’s also more than just avoiding legalism. I have talked to ex-Christians who told me that they understood completely that they were saved by grace, through faith; that they never felt the need to prove their devotion to God by following the Bible in terms of rules; and yet still, as they sought to practice their faith as they believed the Bible taught, they were tossed onto the shoals of an utter exhaustion of self-sacrifice and self-denial. In short, at the end of the day they felt as if they had no “self” left. And this, they are still sure, is what Christianity and following the Bible are all about; and why they ended up leaving.

What this is, is like taking off one pair of glasses and putting on another, or changing the kind of glass in the windows you look out of. Through different windows, everything looks different.

The difference is narrative theology over systematic theology.

In systematic theology, all the things in the Bible are categorized systematically to make up a set of principles and rules for living. There is nothing wrong with categorizing and systematizing the Bible; systematic theology has its uses. It can be very helpful, for instance, to look at every place where the Bible mentions one specific subject, to get an overview of how the Bible as a whole treats that subject. But I believe narrative theology should come first, as it yields a better Christian understanding of the whole of the faith. Narrative theology should govern systematic theology, and not the other way around.

Narrative theology recognizes that taken as a whole, the Bible is primarily a story: the story of God's interactions with humanity, with the story of Christ in the center as the focal point. Looking at it as a story means that you interpret each thing in terms of where it belongs in the plot; and you see a progression in the human understanding of the nature of God from the earlier to the later books.

Viewed as a story-- a collection of ancient books written at different times, but all centering around God’s ongoing actions in the redemption of humanity-- the differences in ethics and moral values, as understood by the various cultures in which the books arose, becomes less troubling. If God was primarily interested in coming in to us in human flesh, in order to restore us to unity with one another and with God-- then God might choose to work within human cultural systems to effect gradual change, and to gradually change human values to come more into line with the ideal of universal human love-- but that would not need to be God’s highest priority. Accommodation in this sense might, in fact, be seen as a better way to effect real ethical change over the long run.

When the viewpoint is that the Bible is primarily a way to find God’s will and obey it, then in any particular passage, the question is, "what is the God-endorsed best way of living, and how am I to follow it?" Or perhaps (in the Old Testament particularly) "Does this rule apply to me; is it ok if I don't follow it?" (And it is possible, even if we believe we’re living in grace, to still approach the Bible primarily in this mindset.)

The other viewpoint focuses on God's plan: "What was God trying to accomplish in this particular part of the Story? How did people understand God then? How did Jesus change that understanding of God, and how can I be part of what God is doing now?"

The first way values obedience for its own sake, and self-sacrificial obedience especially. But to see this other way is to see obedience only as a means to an end. If God wants us to do something, why does God want us to do it? This view says that though Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross was certainly in obedience to the Father, the bigger picture for Jesus was the “new covenant in my blood” which was what he was doing it for. And the point of the New Covenant is that it brings us into the New Creation, in which we are united with Christ and our hearts become a home for the Father; where we are no longer led by the law, but by the Spirit. Self-sacrifice must have a redemptive reason: it doesn’t exist for its own sake. If self-sacrifice for the sake of another is not helping either us or them, then it’s the wrong solution.

The systematic way tends to sum up Christianity in terms of two words: “Yes, Lord.” The narrative way uses a different two words: “Christ rose.” That’s the point of the Story. Christ identified with me in death so that I could identify with him in life. I’m putting my trust in him and am becoming part of the New Creation. It’s not that I don’t obey God-- but I believe God is only interested in our obedience in so far as it leads to the higher goal of bringing humans into harmony with the life and love of God. What God wants-- God’s ultimate goal-- is to love and be loved by us, and that we would love one another.

This change in viewpoint also changes the way we interpret the texts. Instead of seeing each bit of scripture as a command or principle that reveals God’s will for how we should live, we look at each bit of scripture first in terms of where it fits into the whole plot-- and only afterwards do we ascertain how to apply its principles in our own lives. And because Christ’s coming is central, and central to Christ’s teachings are the commandments “love God with all your being/love your neighbor as yourself” -- we look at Christian practice primarily in terms of whether it helps us to better love God, others and ourselves. Practices that are harmful and destructive to ourselves or to others, then, cannot be the intention of the text and should be jettisoned.

Christ’s coming brings the New Creation, and the New Creation changes the way we are to relate to one another. 2 Corinthians 5:16 says we are no longer to look at one another “according to the flesh.” If any interpretation of Scripture results in our focusing on the flesh in the way we view one another-- for example, granting privileges or making restrictions based on race, sex or economic status-- then it doesn’t fit the big picture, or the direction in which God is leading humanity, and we need to examine our interpretation. Contrary to what many Christians will tell us, changing the way we see and follow these sorts of texts is not disrespecting the Bible-- in fact, it is treating the Bible with more respect. If the Bible really is mainly the Story of how God created humanity, prepared the world for the coming of the Christ, then came, died and rose again so that we could walk in new life-- then it is when we see things in terms of that new life that we are really following the Bible.

But to those looking through the old glasses, all they can see is what looks like disobedience and blatant disregard for what they see as God’s revealed will for how we are to live. If the Bible says, “wives be submissive to your husbands,” it has to be because God’s will for marriage has to do with husbands being in charge and wives following their lead. It can’t be because husband-rule was part of the way life was at that time, and that women had no power to fight it and would only damage their own freedom and the message of the New Creation, if they fought it. It can’t be that the passage was telling the husbands, who alone had any power to change things, that it was their responsibility to lay down their power as Christ laid down his, in order to raise up their wives as Christ raised up the church. But through the new glasses, that passage is about a Spirit-led change of direction for first-century marriage so that Christians could begin to realize the New Creation in their family relationships.

For non-Christians and ex-Christians-- I can understand why you think the Bible supports slavery, tribalism and patriarchy. But perhaps you can also understand my perspective as to why I think those were incidental to, and not part and parcel of, the Bible’s message.

And I do think my new glasses fit me rather well.