Among the more controversial Roman Catholic documents is Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul VI on birth control. This encyclical famously instructs against the use of artificial contraception methods in the regulation of birth. This position is based on the theological warrant that the natural law of God’s reproductive design requires human sexuality, if it is to be moral, to be always nuptial, companionable, and open to new life. The encyclical anticipates a number of reasons why people will object to this teaching, including: population problems, family and personal limitations, economic concerns, and so on. It also anticipates that some will suggest procreative and unitive ends must be seen diachronically in the context of the fullness of nuptial sexuality, such that sexuality would be understood holistically rather than as a series of individual sexual acts. Despite its acknowledgement of these concerns as legitimate, the encyclical argues that grave harm flows from the distortion of natural law and leads inevitably to the degradation of sexual dignity and nuptial integrity (for example, in making free sex more available to young people outside of marriage or cheapening male regard for women on account of women’s sexual objectification). The encyclical thus opts for an approach that evaluates sexual morality in terms of individual sexual acts.
The perspective of the document has been critically unpacked for decades, and its instruction is in the very least unconvincing to many Catholic couples. I find in my teaching that Catholic college students today are unfamiliar with the document’s language and rationale, even though they may know the basic instruction that Catholics aren’t supposed to use birth control. Since this issue is both topical currently due to the healthcare legislation and since birth regulation is a requisite discussion in my course on sexual ethics, I have the students read the encyclical itself. Now, this is a hard task because I know by and large what the student reactions will be. Their most favorable reaction is generally that the document has no instructional or binding value for them. Their least favorable reaction is that the document makes poor sense of the human situation today, especially because human sexual expression reaches well beyond the Church’s vision of normative, heterosexual, marital union. Read more…
Growing up in an evangelical Christian church, I was taught that human beings should serve one another and put others before themselves. These two different teachings, paired with patriarchal misogyny, have sometimes been very problematic for me. I tend(ed) to give too much. Too many demands with which I complied were self-negating (which after all, helped me to make other people more important than myself). It took me a long time to learn how to appropriately prioritize my own needs, to stop mistaking self-esteem for the”‘sin of pride,” and how to say no when I needed to… Actually, I am still learning some of these lessons.
Conversely, my ritualized service to the church was sometimes confusing, awkward or embarrassing. I clearly remember having the opportunity to serve as something like an usher during Thanksgiving at our family’s church as a child. This involved wearing a pilgrim costume, which for me meant finding a Puritan style costume in the church’s closet that fit my overweight childhood frame. This was not an easy task and left me feeling ashamed. Later as an adolescent, my youth group asked us to wash one another’s feet as Jesus did for his disciples. Now, don’t misunderstand me here— I do believe that this ritual has the potential to be very powerful and meaningful for those involved. However, my teenage self could not identify with the symbolic gesture beyond realizing that:
1) I thought touching other people’s feet was gross, as was having my dirty feet touched and,
2) I knew I ‘should’ get something out of the ritual but did not, so I felt spiritually guilty or inadequate.
Overall, I often associated Christian service with guilt, inadequacy, my role as a daughter or woman or my sacrificial duty. Read more…
Olives are being harvested in the fields outside my town these days. We have been having the first rains of the season. The roads are wet and muddy, and the trees are partially shrouded in mist. The fields are spread with black plastic nets, and people are hard at work, the men hitting the trees to make the olives fall, and the women picking up the olives from the nets. The harvest will continue throughout the winter.
The olive press is busy. Cars and trucks come and go, unloading heavy bags filled with olives. These days the bags are white, made of sturdy woven plastic. In Crete this fall several of us bought canvas olive bags, hand-woven by women. These, along with baskets hand-woven by men, were still in use only a few decades ago.
A friend who died a few years ago told me that “in the old days” there were no nets. The women and the children had to pick the olives up from the ground, often cutting their hands on thorns and stones. The nets are a Goddess-send. Between harvests, the nets are simply folded up and placed in the crotch of the tree. Here no one steals them.
In the fields where I walk some of the trees have enormous trunks. Some of them have two trunks, growing like sisters. Many of them are 300, some perhaps 500, years old. A man emerges from a field that has some particularly old trees. I ask him how old they are. “Older than I am,” he replies. “They were here before I was born. They will be here after I die.” Read more…
Mike Wilson’s persistent replacement of water sources in the desert for those who may be dying of thirst is part of his affirmation that we are all inextricably connected…the affirmation that our individual well-being cannot be separated from our collective well-being.
I carry two water bottles with me at all times, one for water and one for change – quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies, as well as the occasional dollar bill. I carry the first bottle because, here in the U.S., I have the luxury of accessing potable drinking water, from which I am able to refill my reusable water bottle, almost everywhere I go. I don’t go anywhere without it. Even at a friend’s house or out to eat at a restaurant, when offered a glass of drinking water I simply pull out my water bottle and if needed refill it from the tap. No need to wash an extra cup. I especially find it necessary to have my water bottle with me when I am at conferences or business meetings where the default is to provide people with brand new single-use disposable water bottles that more often than not end up in the trash can instead of the recycling bin – which is often not even available. I carry my water bottle with me at all times.
Sadly (and, criminally, really), people in the U.S., 90% of whom have access to perfectly good drinking water from their tap, are the top consumers of store bought bottled water – and unnecessarily so. The great irony is that 40% of bottled water comes directly from public water supplies – from the city’s public works for which tax-payers are already paying. Meanwhile, in many parts of the world people are literally dying of thirst and access to fresh drinking water continues to be a growing crisis. Single-use bottled water makes me angry, for unless water is being bottled in order to be transported to people in places that have no access to it, buying bottled water is unnecessary, indulgent, and willfully uninformed. Read more…
The story in the Gospel of John of the encounter Jesus has with a Samaritan woman (hereafter, ‘the Samaritan’) at Jacob’s well (4:7-29) has attracted considerable scholarly attention. For an overview of some of the interpretive issues raised by it there is a video of a conversation about it between H. W. Attridge and D. L. Bartlett of Yale Divinity School available on Youtube here. I intend to focus primarily on only four verses, John 4:16-19.
Here is my translation (the underlying Greek and links to interpretive resources can be found here):
16 [Jesus] said: “go tell your ‘man’ and come back here.”
17 The Samaritan answered, “I do not have a ‘man.”’ Jesus said to her “Beautifully you said ‘I do not have a man.’
18 You have had five ‘men,’ and the one whom you have now is not your ‘man.’ You spoke truthfully.”
19 The Samaritan said to him: “Sir, I see you are a wise listener.”
My translation is intended to bring out what I take to be a play on the meaning of the underlying Greek word for man. Before I explain exactly what the play on meaning is about I want to justify the assumption that there is some sort of play in the first place. Some have argued that the reference to the bride and bridegroom at John 3:29 foreshadows the meeting of Jesus and the Samaritan as a spiritual wedding. The theme of a spiritual wedding is arguably also foreshadowed in how John starts the book itself, for ‘beginning’ is a feminine noun in Greek and ‘word’ is masculine, making ‘in the beginning was the word’ sexually symbolic; that, in turn, suggests that the well before which Jesus and the Samaritan stand, or the water in it, symbolizes God, or at least the spirit of God. Read more…
The XVII Conference of Latin American Religious Alternatives is being held this week in Porto Alegre, Brazil. This event will bring together scholars and researchers from across the continent to talk together about religion, integration, and identity. I will be presenting three papers, all about Islamic feminism. I am pleased to have such a space to discuss new ways of understanding the phenomenon of religion in Latin America and the role of feminism in Latin American religion. I want to share some of my personal reflections regarding gender, feminism and religion with you today.
It is true that today all so-called ‘major’ religions—Islam, too—are patriarchal and male minded. It would be a fall into denial to say that abuses in the name of religion do not have a concrete impact on the lives of many women around the world. While it is possible to differentiate between what the Qur’an says and the discourse of patriarchy on Islam, the reality is that it is this patriarchy that dominates our understanding of religion. Read more…
A Turkey Tail Tale
Once upon a time, oh, maybe five hundred years ago, there lived a little girl and her brother in a small village at the foot of a high, flat hill, on the crown of which stood the palace of the Prince and Princess and the large city that surrounded the palace. The two children were practically orphans. This was because their ethereally beautiful mother had died as the result of the misapprehension of an impetuous unicorn, and their father, who was a printer, had to frequently leave their little cottage and climb the hill. This was because no one in the village knew that printing had recently been invented, so, slinging his incunabula and foul copies across his back, the printer had to leave his sub-urban village and climb the hill to the city and the palace to secure printing work. Fortunately, the Prince employed a highly literate and prolific dwarf who was always composing epic tales that just called out to be printed and preserved in folio editions with highly decorated covers. The printer’s two children were thus neglected and often hungry; they would, in fact, have starved if not for the generous neighbor women who took pity on them and fed and washed them and patched their clothes at least once every seven days.
When the printer came down from the city one day at the beginning of summer, he was accompanied by a large, loud woman and her two young, loud daughters. “Children,” he said, “this is your new stepmother. And your new stepsisters.” The woman and her daughters took one look at the grubby children and the grubbier hovel (not to mention the cluttered printing room next to it) and raised their noses into the air. This printer, said the woman to herself, promised me a nice cottage! I got the distinct impression that he was rich! Or at least well-off and able to provide good dowries for my daughters. And just look at this! I don’t think my daughters and myself will be able to bear such wretched surroundings. But all she said out loud was, “Well, well, well. Two children. How nice.” But her two daughters pointed at the children and laughed at them. “Why are you even here?” they shouted. “You belong in a cave in the woods with the other filthy wild animals!” Read more…