Recently at a discussion of Goddess and God in the World, Judith Plaskow and I were asked if the dialogue across religious difference we embody and advocate in our book is a “liberal thing.” Can it, the questioner wondered, occur with those who do not have a liberal view of religion and religious meaning?
I answered that Judith and I identified two principles that made our dialogue possible. The first and most important is that we share the conviction that individuals and communities always interpret their texts and traditions from particular standpoints, deciding with aspects of text or tradition they will make central and which they will criticize or ignore.
For example, those who advocate Lev. 18:22’s injunction that “you shall not lie with a male as with a woman” (NRSV) generally expand its meaning to include female as well as male homosexuality. They ignore the fact that extending this text to a prohibition of lesbianism is an “interpretation” not found in the original Hebrew. At the same time, they ignore other provisions in the text–including that it condones slavery under certain conditions as the notorious letter to Dr. Laura “Why Can’t I Own a Canadian?” attests.
In conclusion, I said that interfaith dialogue with those who believe that they have access to a revealed truth given by God and not subject to interpretation would be extremely difficult.
In the intervening days, I have been asking myself if the particular beliefs of religious fundamentalists are the main problem with their worldviews or if the main problem is the authoritarian mindset that leads them to deny the principle that all texts and traditions are interpreted from standpoints.
This led me to the insight that the beliefs of religious fundamentalists that religious liberals find abhorrent—including the idea that homosexuality is wrong or the idea that women must submit to their husbands—are part and parcel of the authoritarian mindset. In other words, once we get beyond generalities (which themselves are interpretations), we might find that in fact authoritarian versions of religions have very little in common with their liberal counterparts.
The authoritarian understanding of religion holds that certain texts and traditions are divinely revealed and therefore not subject to questioning. Questioning itself is often prohibited. Change within tradition is also prohibited. The original revelation is held to be once and for all: the final revelation.
The texts and traditions of the so-called major or great religions—Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam—were shaped by patriarchy. Opposition to the idea of interpretation and to the notion that religions change over time ensures that the original patriarchal versions of these religions will remain intact.
I reflected further that the authoritarian attitude within religion is a product of patriarchy: it assumes that God is a dominating other who rules from above and dictates the truth to subordinates and/or that religious leaders and the elites who interpret their teachings are dominating others and everyone else is a follower.
I concluded that it is not surprising that the authoritarian mindset within religions correlates with the domination of some group or groups, usually male, over others.
Finally, I wondered whether the idea that all religions teach ideas love and justice is itself a fantasy of the liberal imagination. It may (or may not) be true that liberal versions the so-called major religions teach love and justice. But is it true that authoritarian versions of these same traditions teach the same message? Or is the central message of authoritarian religions domination: the domination of God over man, religious leaders over followers, and some groups over others? It is very hard to engage in dialogue when the goal of the other is to insist on revealed truth–in other words to dominate.
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Carol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology.
Join Carol on the life-transforming and mind-blowing Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete. Space available on the fall tour. Early bird special until June 15.