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The male God of the desert

by RICHARD RODRIGUEZ Thursday, Oct. 18, 2001 at 3:15 PM

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all desert religions, brother-faiths that are male in imagination and tradition, writes PNS editor Richard Rodriguez. Eventually, their masculine principle will be challenged by a feminine spiritual force that is gathering strength behind veils print article

Since September 11th, priests and mullahs and rabbis and ministers in the United States have officiated at ceremonies of grief. What no priest or mullah or rabbi or minister confesses is how religion has brought us to this terrible moment.

Instead, it was British Prime Minister Tony Blair (albeit within a war psalm) who rehearsed a commonplace about the history of religion: Men have, through centuries, blasphemed the name of God to justify human atrocity. Blair recalled Christianity's Crusades against Islam amounted to little more than rape and pillage.

In Washington, President Bush has been careful to distinguish Islam from crimes committed in the name of Islam. His tact is commendable and shrewd. European diplomats have repeated Bush's assurance that the West is not engaged in a religious war; is not at war with Islam.

The face of bin Laden floats up from his cyber-cave to incite Muslims to war with the West. Osama bin Laden describes America as a "Jewish-Christian alliance." In Pakistan, in Indonesia, crowds of men cheer the prospect of jihad against the satanic West.

I am interested that Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are alike religions of the desert. They are brother-faiths, more like one another than any one of them is like an eastern religion -- Hinduism, or Buddhism. The religions of the desert are alike monotheistic, alike paternalistic. They are male in popular imagination, because male in tradition.

All three religions of the desert are revealed religions. God is an activist God; God works in history; God instructs men how He wishes to be worshipped and God makes covenants with men. In the case of Judaism and Islam, the covenant is cut upon the male organ. Christianity may be a feminine sprig of Judaism, but Christianity definitely found its he-man in St. Paul.

At their best, these three theologies instruct humans not to despair in their lives, in their histories, for "I am with you always."

Rescue workers at the site of the World Trade Center spontaneously erect a cross of tortured steel over the rubble, seeking to hallow a field of desolation. I do not gainsay such an impulse; my own impulse would be the same. Nor would I pause to question the symbol. The urgent thing is the reminder that God lives in relationship to men and women.

But at their worst, the desert religions have taken innocent lives in the name of God. Christian anti-Semitism gave rise to the Holocaust. Jewish settlers in the West Bank today enforce an eschatological claim on the land. Muslims justify murder by calling it jihad.

I was driving a friend of mine, a woman of 80 -- Jewish -- to a funeral two weeks ago. In response to nothing I had said (perhaps it was that we were on our way to a funeral) my friend announced her conviction -- another commonplace -- that the world would, in her opinion, be better off without religion. "I mean all of them," she said. An angry gesture of her hand, still a strong hand, wiped them all away.

As we drove on in silence, it occurred to me that I interpreted what my friend had said as something about men, though she had not said men. She had said "religion."

I think that if theology can inure us to the suffering of others it is bad theology. But perhaps partisan theologians would call mine a gelded theology, for it leaves out righteousness.

In latter days, fundamentalist Jerry Falwell sounded very much like an anti-American imam when he described the terrorist attack on America as representing God's abandonment, which he attributed to the activities of the American Civil Liberties Union, to gays, to pro-abortionists, and some others.

Before he was overwhelmed by a reflux of patriotism, Falwell was seconded by his rival, Pat Robertson. And, for a moment, amidst all the sorrow, the rhetoric, the malaise, Americans glimpsed a likeness that unites Jewish settlers in the West Bank to bearded mobs in Yemen to Christian fundamentalists in Virginia. They are united in their certainty of God's plan and their own situation within God's plan -- a righteous confraternity of hormonal clarity that accounts for much of the history of misery on our planet.

Most Americans are not so certain, though most Americans belong to one of the three great desert faiths. And most Americans, after September 11th, were willing to conflate, to confuse the political with the religious -- whether at street-corner shrines or in response to the oratory of politicians. (At my parish church last week, the congregation sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee" during the Offertory.)

President Bush, who describes himself as "a born-again Christian," describes the United States as being on the right side; describes the enemies of the United States as "on the side of evil."

Federal phrasemakers -- who decides such things? -- initially titled the American retaliation project as "Infinite Justice." The title was withdrawn as offensive to "Muslim Americans.") It was offensive also to me. Men, however large their hat-sizes, do not wield infinite justice.

America owes its civic organization to pagan Greece and to Enlightenment France. America was founded as an alternative to the sectarian nations of Europe, where

wars within religions and among religions saturated the soil with martyrs' blood, infidels' blood. Secular America protects and tolerates persons of every faith. The Constitution of the United States protects the right of each to worship God or Goddess or daemon or Redwood Tree or Nothing At All.

For all our tolerance of separate faiths, we behave as though we are oblivious of the ways our religions overlap and imitate one another in sin as well as in goodness. Many American Christians and Jews were shocked by the blowing up of the Buddha by the Taliban government.

But Northern Europe was full of broken Madonnas (the Protestant Reformation). My own church, the Roman Catholic Church, made something of a specialty, during the Spanish colonial era, of erecting churches atop Aztec or Inca temples and calling the practice syncretism.

What alone moderates the three religions I call "masculine" have been intuitions of the "feminine" within each. I speak not of men and women but of masculine and feminine impulses. These impulses, furthermore, are responses to the self-same


The masculine impulse is to stand, to prophesy, to defend the faith, to convert the infidel or to slay him. Prophesy and its interpretation are masculine, as are schism, holy war, inquisition, reformation, excommunication. The masculine impulse will fight to defend its theology against a variant theology of the same God.

The feminine impulse recognizes itself among all religions. The feminine impulse touches bodies, rescues the Samaritan, accomplishes charity, regardless of male permission or orthodoxy.

In my own church, John Paul II has insisted that orthodoxy is male -- forever. My suspicion, however, is that the age of post-modern Catholicism will be remembered more for the tough, pragmatic humanitarianism of Mother Teresa than for the

charismatic, sentimental authoritarianism of the Polish pope, who is credited by his defenders as having, like some ancient Crusader, "defeated" communism. Perhaps our age will be remembered more for the feminine, pan-religious cult of Princess Diana than for either of the above.

The feminine impulse (again, I speak not of men and women) tends toward the mystical, toward listening rather than utterance, toward the imagination of one's neighbor as oneself. Though the admissibility of the mystical tradition into orthodoxy has always been under the jurisprudence of the masculine.

The notion of relinquishing one's will to God -- God as lover, bridegroom, revelator -- is feminine. Joan of Arc is an example of the feminine mystical impulse attempting to enter into the male cult of action. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake as a heretic.

I find magnificence in the masculine tradition of the great cathedrals and mosques and green deserts and towering Buddhas immemorial; religious universities and their libraries; the human desire to write the summa.

But the summa seeks to limit God by defining Him. What I find abhorrent in religion -- admittedly what we have most sought from religion -- is certainty, refutation of imagination, churches militant.

In many societies, including my own, religion is often and easily dismissed as something for women, and old women at that. Very well, then, why is it that only women know -- another commonplace about religion -- that all religions are one, despite the funny hats; that theological differences are minute, as minute as differences in DNA and undetectable by satellite; that contradictions seemingly irreconcilable can be resolved, as in an arabesque.

Whether one lights a candle at the shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows or at the shrine of an elephantine God, feminine spirituality will acknowledge that the impulse is the same --to plead for the protection of a fragile world.

If we survive the coming war of the 12th or the 21st century among the three desert religions, my suspicion is that a deeper reflux awaits us. The masculine principle in religion will be challenged by a feminine spiritual force that is gathering strength behind veils. And that force might best be characterized as something very like what my friend at the funeral expressed: If religion can bring us to this pass, who needs it?

Rodriguez is author of "Days of Obligation: An Autobiography With My Mexican Father" and the forthcoming "Brown." - Pacific News Service

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