women and religion: christianity November 13, 2006Posted by Brad Richert in religion, sexism.
There is a paradox in how women are treated in major religions. A woman’s body, as child-bearer garners respect and admiration. Yet a woman’s body, especially as a sexual being, is surrounded by fear-driven taboos. This paradox should be incompatible with the core teachings of many of the major religions. Yet doctrine, subsequent writings, and cultural values have continued to treat women’s bodies with a distorted dualism. The Christian religion itself has witnessed conflicting dualism between spirit and flesh, which has in turn only aggravated the paradoxical dualism within females.
Nowhere in the Gospels, which contain the narrative of Christianity’s founder Jesus, is their any concern about the sexual actions or bodily functions. In actuality, any treatment of women by Jesus was positive and even counter-cultural. The Gospel’s explicitly state a positive treatment of children in particular, not distinguishing between male children or female children. Jesus, according to the Gospels, had female followers who were of all sorts of status, rich or poor, old or young, mother or barren. Sexuality most definitely was not a concern in the Gospels concerning Jesus or the Book of Acts (attributed to Luke), which follows an early history of the church.
The paradox of women begins quite early in the church as it grew exponentially. Unlike many other religions, the teachings or doctrines that attached patriarchal values did not accumulate over several centuries. Instead, the animosity towards women and their bodies seemed to develop within relatively early Christian writings, notably in the “Pauline” letters. It is no mistake that this is also where there is some discussion of Gnostic influences that create a dualism between body and spirit. However, many of the structures put in place at this time were not explained (ex. 1 Timothy 3:2-13). So although Jesus had seemed completely counter-cultural in many ways, the letters attributed to Paul by Christians seem to have re-instated many cultural values, notably against women. However, even this cultural animosity re-instated does not account for later church actions that solidified the dualism between women’s sexuality and her role as life-bringer.
Although scholars are not certain of time frames, many argue that Gnosticism (or at least Platonic thought) was apparent within Christianity from very early on. As “mainstream” Christianity fought to reject the Gnostic dualism is also picked up some of its characteristics for its own. Although extreme in some Gnostic sects, the dualism between flesh/body and spirit was moderate in mainstream Christianity. It was this dualism of body and spirit within Christianity that seriously affected the views on women. Sexual actions became associated, sometimes only implicitly, with the flesh, as did any sort of “earthly pleasures”. Since this association occurred in a patriarchal society, the negative perspectives of sexuality were placed upon the male’s sexual partner, the female. In addition to this Gnostic influence, Jewish traditions also attributed to the taboos associated with a women’s body.
The negative view of a woman’s body sharply contrasted and conflicted with the Christian respect for life. In Roman Catholicism, the Madonna is held in such high esteem because of her role as the mother of God. However, it could also be argued that the praise of the Virgin Mary is the reason for the confusing dichotomy of sexuality and motherhood. Naturally, women cannot give birth and thus raise children without sexual acts. However, the Virgin Mary is believed to have given birth and raised the Son of God without the need of a sexual act. Women subsequently cannot follow this example and are thus denigrated as imperfect because of their inability to reconciliate the seemingly unholy sexual acts of the flesh and pleasure with the praiseworthy act of raising children, especially those filled with the Holy Spirit.