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Of Sex In Religion

In a study of sex in religion it would be open to us to follow one of two different directions. We might, regarding humanity as the subject of religion, as operated upon mysteriously by its unseen spiritual force, try to analyse the separate effect of this force as working upon the masculine or the feminine nature. Or, contrariwise, taking religion in its aspect as a human product, we might seek to trace in its institutions, its theologies and its varied activities the separate share which each of the sexes has contributed Along either of these ways some noteworthy results would be obtained if they were carefully followed. The differences between man and woman stand out in a quite new aspect when seen under this special light. Each half of the race gives out its own peculiar note when that element of it is touched. It is certain that we shall not properly understand either religion or human nature until some such inquiry has been made. Many of the greatest mistakes of the past have been due to the neglect of it. In the religious reconstruction of the future the reparation of that neglect will, if we mistake not, form one of the leading features.

Looking at religion, for a moment, as a product, one might suppose at first sight that it was almost entirely a masculine affair. It is man everywhere who explores its metaphysics, who erects its theologies, who founds and governs its institutions. Man is its pope, priest, and prophet ; its legislator, preacher, and pastor. Its divines have all been men. The great world religions, originating in the East, have taken an entirely Eastern view of the man's and the woman's part in this supreme interest. In the Judaean decalogue woman is subordinate and ancillary. Thy "neighbour's wife," in the command against covetousness, is included in the list of his possessions. The Mohammedan was indisposed to concede woman a soul at all. In early and mediaeval Catholicism she is treated with a courtesy almost as scant. In monkish literature she figures as the temptress to be fled from, the one malign influence against which, above all others, the saint must steel his soul. The feeling has its appropriate expression in that brutal outburst of Tertullian,

Woman, thou art the gate of hell." In a later and more enlightened time we find Erasmus demeaning himself by describing woman as "an absurd and ridiculous animal, though entertaining and pleasant " ; while his contemporary Rabelais has no epithet too coarse with which. to pelt her. In a later century the polished La Bruyère thinks he has said the final word upon woman in declaring that "the greater part of them have hardly principles, but are guided by the heart, and depend for their morals on those they love." From the beginning woman has occupied no position of authority in the Church. Her voice has never been heard at a council, nor has her pen ever formulated a decree. The England of to-day gives a curious illustration of the ecclesiastical ban under which she has been placed, in the status it accords to the wives of Church dignitaries. An archbishop may have social precedence over a duke, while his wife shall be plain Mrs. Smith. It was left for a woman to put the finishing touch on this order of things in the remark of Queen Elizabeth to the wife of Archbishop Parker, on being entertained at Lambeth, "Madam I may not call you, and mistress I am loth to call you. I know not what to call you, but yet I thank you for your good cheer."

If woman were of a revengeful disposition she might easily console herself by reflecting on the price that man has had to pay for his exclusiveness. He has, she might reflect, assumed the right to legislate fer the Church, to define its doctrine, to build up its whole system of thought, and a pretty mess he has made of it. His ecclesiastical polity has split the Church into a thousand pieces, while his theology has made religion hateful to multitudes of ingenuous minds. It is safe to say that the mother side of humanity would never have constructed the hell of mediaevalism, nor have made it possible to exhibit as orthodoxy the notion of Aquinas that heaven's pleasure would be augmented by the view of the tortures of the lost, or that of Calvin of the preordained damnation of the non-elect. The male ecclesiastic, imagining religion to be an affair of dry intellect, a formula to be ground out of his logic mill, succeeded in making it anti-human. He achieved the surprising feat of so dressing up the primal facts concerning God and the soul as to make theology a nightmare, and of turning a region of thought, which ought to have been man's highest inspiration, into a jumble of inconsistencies, at once a barrier to faith and a stumbling block to the moral sense. Nothing has been made clearer than that the attempt to build religion out of elements purely masculine is a blunder for which the outraged nature of things will always take a full revenge.

But we are anticipating, and, moreover, this is not a quite complete statement of the case. We must remind ourselves of what was suggested at the beginning, that it is only, after all, a surface view which fails to recognise woman in the history of religious production. Man has tried hard to shut her out from this sphere, but, happily, he has not fully succeeded. One feels a sort of poetical justice in the fact that, as Professor Brinton points out, in certain primitive tribes it was the woman only and not the man who was regarded as possessing an immortal soul. Polytheism, in all its forms, has vaguely felt after the truth of the feminine element in religion in distributing the celestial government amongst gods and goddesses. In Catholicism the deification of the Virgin Mary may be said to have found its basis in this sense of the feminine element as necessary to the idea of Deity. Renan puts it in his own daring fashion in the assertion that in the Catholic system Mary has entered of full right into the Trinity, having displaced there the thin and incomprehensible idea of the Holy Spirit. However we may regard that curious statement, this at least may be said, that the only way of accounting for the success of a cult so badly based both in reason and in history is in regarding it as the clumsy expression of the human yearning after a Divine Motherhood, as combining with the strength of the eternal Fatherhood, at the heart of the universe.

When we look a little more deeply into religious history we shall be less surprised at finding how, despite all effort to the contrary, ideas traceable to woman's religious intuition have to so considerable a degree found their way into the Church's thought. For behind most of the great teachers has stood a woman. Augustine owed himself to his mother Monica. At the back of Basil and of Gregory of Nyssa we discern the figure of their sister Macrina, who led them both to the faith, and stirred them to their best work," about whom Gregory confesses that he wrote his treatise on "The Soul and the Resurrection " from her inspiration. We remember what Jacqueline was to Pascal and what Henriette was to Renan. Let us not forget either the direct influence which, even in the period when masculine autocracy in religion was at its height, woman from time to time contrived to exert. Each century of the dark ages is illuminated by some woman teacher. Jerome celebrates for us Paula, the distinguished Roman matron, the great Hebrew scholar to whom the Latin father was glad to refer difficult points in his commentary on Ezekiel. The eighth century shows us those Benedictine puns who did so much to evangelise Europe, the workers under Boniface, such as Lioba, Walburga, and Berthgytha, who missionised Grermany, and are reported as being versed in all the science of the time. What a figure, too, is that of Hildegarde, in the eleventh century, whom Rohrbacher calls the "instructor of the people, the councillor of bishops and monarchs, the restorer of piety and manners, and oracle of the Church ; who was among women what St. Bernard was among men." What might one not say also of a Catherine of Siena, in the fourteenth century, the beloved of the poor, and at the same time the feared and obeyed of popes ; or of the Spanish Teresa, of the sixteenth, who founded orders, advised kings, and whose " Treatise of Prayer " is one of the most wonderful of devotional works !

As we trace the feminine influence in religion through the past and observe its fuller expansion in our own times, we realise more clearly the dimensions of the blunder which for long ages sought so persistently to repress it. For, as we now begin to perceive, it is the woman nature that, more intimately than the man's, expresses the innermost soul of religion. It is dawning upon us that those spheres of reason and of logic where man is strongest, and where he loved of old to elaborate his theologic systems, are not, after all, the place where we shall find the thing we are seeking. Faith's true seat is elsewhere in the soul. The statement of a modern investigator that " science arises from man's conscious, and religion from his subconscious states," may perhaps be too sweeping a generalisation, but it points undoubtedly in the right direction. We are understanding better now Pascal's profound remark, in its application to religion, that " what is founded only in reason is very badly founded." It is in the region beyond reason, in the sphere of intuition, of feeling, of aspiration, of that Formless which Goethe declared to be the highest thing in man, that religion finds at once its perennial spring and its impregnable refuge. And it is precisely because in these regions woman's nature is at its richest that we are beginning to discover how primary and how essential is the contribution which she makes to it. It is because along that side of its nature humanity most quickly and most surely feels the quiver of the Infinite that woman must inevitably in the future be recognised as arch-priestess of religion.

In proportion as this element of the suprarational existing both in man and woman, but in man so frequently deficient assumes without cavil its true place in religion, we shall see going on in it a steady readjustment of values. The bastard religion of dogma, forged in a place which has no proper apparatus for producing it, will yield precedence to the true religion of faith, hope and love. The Church will cease to frame definitions of everything in the universe, with anathemas attached against all who fail to accept them, and will instead give itself to its proper work of loving, praying and serving. It will labour with all its might to understand, but it will not again commit the offence of offering the world a syllogistic salvation. It will know God as every mother's soul has always known Him, and as logic has never known Him. It will bear sinners on its heart as mothers do their prodigal sons. And by this means will it arrive at and abide in the true orthodoxy, the proper knowledge of God. For it is because God's heart has in its centre this mother love that He is our God. It is because Christ's life was the expression of that heart that He is the Saviour of the world.

( Originally Published 1903 )

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