Live the Questions

Words of Torah, funny anecdotes about my students, rants about education policy, and observations on politics, progressive Judaism, activism, and culture will all make appearances on this blog. Each post will end with a question for the reader; please respond if you feel moved.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Pope Benedict, God is asking the same question to you, too

So Pope Benedict visited Auschwitz and was inspired to pray:

“Where was God in those days? Why was he silent? How could he permit this endless slaughter, this triumph of evil?” Benedict, one of the Church’s leading theologians, said humans could not “peer into God’s mysterious plan” to understand such evil, but only “cry out humbly yet insistently to God—rouse yourself! Do not forget mankind, your creature!” (as reported by MSNBC)

Well, Benny, I think you're suffering from the syndrome we like to call the "I sent two boats and a helicopter syndrome." You know that old joke? A man is warned that severe floods are coming and that he should evacuate his home. He refuses to evacuate, saying, "I've always trusted in God and I know that God will save me." Sure enough, torrential rains and floods follow and the man finds himself confined to the second floor of his home. Several Coast Guard boats arrive to rescue him, but the man decides to remain in his home, saying, "God will save me." The waters rise, he's stuck atop his roof, and a helicopter tries to save him, but he refuses the help again. He dies. When he gets to heaven, he angrily asks God, "Why didn't you save me?" and God responds, "Well, I sent two boats and a helicopter!"

When a man who was part of the Hitler Youth Movement as a teenager asks God, "Where were you? Why were you silent?" there's nothing to say but, "Pope Benedict, where were YOU? Why were you silent?" I am sure the Pope would describe himself as an instrument of God in the world, and yet his prayer at Auschwitz is evidence that he doesn't really consider himself to be one. He seems to prefer waiting around for a miracle to confronting the fact that God acts through us and needs us to bring morality into the world.

As one of my amazing New Haven mentors always says, "God has no hands but ours."

Pope Benedict is a powerful man. He has political influence, money, and resources aplenty. He has the ability to do more to aid the oppressed and the suffering than most of us. However, if his idea of helping people is to pray, then that's really frightening. How many lives could he save if his theology involved a more active role for human beings in creating a just world?

But maybe the Catholic Church is too busy with other things . . .
. . . like managing spin about the DaVinci Codes.

After seeing the movie last night (I read the book a year or two ago) I was dissappointed to see that Sony Pictures had obviously added in some lines to placate establishment Church types. (At the end of the movie, Langdon asks Sophie: "What would a real descendent of Jesus do: destroy faith, or renew it?" I expected her to pull back her sleeve to reveal a WWJD bracelet.)

Be that as it may, I decided that establishment religion (not just the Church) should be scared by this book and movie, because while The Da Vinci Codes is fictional on one level, it's completely true on another. The Priory of Sion, secret ancient conspiracies to protect Jesus' descendants, etc.-- that's an entertaining fiction. The idea that establishment religion has systematically tried to eradicate representations of God as female / goddess imagery (and when they couldn't be eradicated, co-opted those symbol sets into a masculine-dominated paradigm) is true. While spawning another legion of Holy Grail seekers is useless, perhaps it's a positive step to provide alternative pathways for women who struggle to identify with God or create a relationship with God due to the masculine imagery promulgated by mainstream religion. So instead of being reactionary and denying that the book has any truth to it, could churches and synagogues use this as an opportunity to explore female God symbolism and language? This may be a chance to discuss gender and God, a chance to confront the fact that although I warrant most religious people would agree that God has no gender, our dominant paradigm for God is a masculine one? No, of course not. But it's nice to dream.

Fun fact: The British judge who wrote the copyright-infringement decision about The Da Vinci Codes actually included a coded puzzle in his opinion. Cool, no?


  • At 2:44 AM, Anonymous NH3 said…

    Although I don't agree with the Pope's sentiments about the forgetfulness of God, you have to be careful in attacking the theology of a man whose entire ordained life has been steeped in the study and understanding of different theologies. Clearly we see in the Psalms David's fears of God forsaking his people and cries for Him not to abandon or hide Himself (see Ps 10, 13, 44, 74 et al.) In fact the Pope's cry for God to "rouse" Himself is almost a direct quote from Ps 44:23, "Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!"
    I think that the Pope's sentiment is certainly not from a unique theology but is fairly common throughout Jewish and Christian history.

    On a more activist note...
    One of my favorite songs is by a group called Casting Crowns titled "If We Are The Body". you can read the lyrics at
    It strikes at the heart of the evangelistic message of the Christian church today. The bottom line is that if you don't live what you believe, you've still got some work to do.

    Then there's the touchy issue of the DaVinci Code. I was rather pleased to see that the changes the Ron Howard and the producers made to the movie made it less antagonistic towards Christianity as a whole. The biggest problem that I have found with the DaVinci Code is that our world culture today ascribes too much truth to anything that is put into print. All but gone are the days when only the intelligent could read, and those that could read had the ability to separate truth from fiction. The DaVinci Code is an outstanding work of fiction, and I loved the book. (though I wish Dan Brown had written DaVinci Code first and then perfected his style in Angels and far a better story) The problem is that most people who would claim to be Christian know just enough about Christianity to be ignorant: not only are they often uneducated in the history and foundational theology of the modern church, they are quick to doubt their own faith (if any exists) when an argument presents itself on a higher educational plane than their own, whether the arguement is true or false. If it sounds reasonable, it must be true, right?
    If that's true, then Tom Clancy's truth has been sorely dissapointing. I'm still looking for a ride on the Red October.

    As for the female symbology question, my own personal experience assigns little importance to it. I approach the argument with the following question, "Why should goddess imagery or expression be explored?" Does expression of the one God, the I AM, have any reason to be espressed as feminine that it hasn't had until now? The argument is not about whether God is male or female because God is not anthropomorphic. We may be created in the image of God, but not in the nature of God. So again, I asy, why do we need to discuss it?

    The good that I believe has come out of the DaVinci Code contraversies is that the Christian Church has embarked upon a self re-education aimed at exposing those un- or undereducated Christians in the history of the church and the justification for the theology. This is an important thing for any religious organization to do. Unfortunately, there are some that you just can't reason with.

    I thank God that His glory is ever present and that as one Roman Jew said "his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made."

    God's pretty cool. His love is unfailing, His mercy abounding, His faithfulness everlasting. Glory be to God!

    Keeping it basic

  • At 9:14 PM, Anonymous General Anna said…

    NH3, a couple of points:
    1. I'm definitely down with your last paragraph-- especially the fact that all of those phrases appear in psalms I pray every day (albeit in the original Hebrew). Nothing any person says to criticize religion could ever diminish God. And I think of attempts to make religion more honest and true to its values as glorifying God, not as diminishing God. Remember, I'm still a religious person and my relationship with God is what gives my life meaning. In fact, I think of part of my service to God that makes my life meaningful is doing my best to sniff out the BS that sometimes passes for religion and to purify, as it were, my connection to the divine.
    2. The male/female God imagery issue is not just about Christianity; it's about Judaism and Islam too. And other religions that I don't know enough about to name.
    3. You asked why using female imagery for God-- in addition to male imagery-- is important. Here's my answer: The only way we can talk about God, describe God, envision God, etc. is through METAPHORS, right? Any way that we imagine or describe God is, by definition, a metaphor because God is bigger than language, bigger than our brains' capacity for apprehension, etc. With me? OK, so therefore our metaphors matter. If the only way we can discuss God is through metaphor, then those metaphors are going to shape how we think of God, act on our beliefs, what we believe, etc. Obviously, God has no gender. Just as obviously, gendered language about God is not going away. We like to think of God as person-esque, which means assigning God gender characteristics-- or at the very least, not calling God "it" when we talk about God in the 3rd person. For the last several thousand years, the overwhelmingly dominant images for God in Western religions have been male images. Why? Because males were associated with power, prestige, religious authority, etc.-- AND because using masculine pronouns and metaphors for God reinforced male hegemony. Men got a two-for-one deal; they got a God they created in their own image and got to justify their own power over women through using these metaphors. As a woman, I can personally attest to the fact that in contexts where God is referred to with only male metaphors, I sometimes feel alienated, distressed, overlooked, and distanced from God. It's hard to feel a personal connection when the most basic aspect of who you are isn't at all reflected in the discussions, liturgy, sacred text, etc. Even worse, some women start to believe that the metaphors are true and that God is somehow gendered or more male than female--and therefore that men are somehow closer to God, more legitimate in God's sight, etc. However, when I am in contexts when God is sometimes referred to with female metaphors and sometimes with male metaphors, I get the sense that God is not gendered but that I can have a personal relationship with a non-gendered God. Does that make sense? This is why adopting the use of female metaphors for God-- not to the exclusion of, but in combination with, male metaphors-- is helpful in developing BOTH the spirituality of men and woman. And remember, this discussion has nothing to do with God Godself-- this has to do with how we imagine God and construct our beliefs. So if our metaphors change, it isn't that God is changing.
    4. Perhaps I was too hard on the Pope, since after I wrote my post I found out that he went AWOL from the German Army. Perhaps he was a less-willing contributor to the Nazi war machine than I had assumed.
    5. On a personal note, I'm having flashbacks from some of our spirited discussions in high school, and it made me smile.
    best to you,
    General Anna

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