Samantha: “isn’t religion just a set of man-made rules?” Me: “Yes”, at one level that’s true.” Samantha: “So God is a man-made creation then?” Me: “No. Religion is the man-made pointer to the divine. I wonder if you think religion and God are the same?” Samantha: “Aren’t they?” Me: “Is the Geiger counter the same as radiation”?
What I wanted to help Samantha to see was a more complex and nuanced picture. Religion is quite literally man-made. I normally try to avoid the traditional use of the male pronoun in matters of religion. But in my talk with Samantha I was happy to stay with using the male pronoun man, because religion is indeed an expression of that which Freud would have referred to as the law of the father or the patriarchal order. It’s also more complex than this simple anthropological analysis reveals.
Religion is a system for organizing the human encounter with the divine dimension – or the numinous, or the sense of greater otherness. This process of organising the experience of the divine is shaped by the particularity of culture and philosophy. This goes some way to accounting for the differences between the great religions, ie. they are the fruit of the way very different cultures, with differing philosophical systems organise the human encounter with the divine.
The great religions as we know them today have deep roots in that phase of human social development anthropologists characterise as the transition from matriarchal to patriarchal forms of social organisation. We see this process so clearly in the transition from the matriarchy of Mycenean culture as represented in Minoan Crete to the patriarchy of Classical Greece.
Patriarchy is a system of values for ordering society that privileges the male experience of the world. Anthropologists date this transition to around 3000BCE. The epics that recount the complex history of the Trojan Wars echo this period of transition to leadership models exclusively embodied in male kingship. Because, patriarchy emerges as a system based upon the male experience of the world, it is male attitudes and more importantly, male anxieties that come to characterise the construction of both gender and gendered relations.
Gender relations construct and police the relations between men and women. While gendered relations construct and police relations within the genders, ie.most significantly between men. Relations between women are also constructed and policed, but these are of lesser concern in the patriarchal order.
The two key concerns in patriarchy are to ensure control over procreation and to regulate competition. Procreation is controlled through the subordination of women to men ensuring clearly defined blood lines of inheritance. Competition between men is regulated through hierarchies of power and privilege.
As our conversation proceeded, Samantha began to identify more clearly the sources of her difficult relationship with organized religion, much of which lay in her experience of religion as man-made. As such religion was for her an expression of the patriarchal order, which in her experience she wanted to challenge. It’s easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater. So the temptation for Samantha was to see the rejection of patriarchal religion with its view of God through the lens of male attributes, attitudes and especially male anxieties, as a rejection of the divine dimension.
Memories of my conversation with Samantha are triggered by the story about that remarkable encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch recorded by Luke in Acts 8. For me, the eunuch has three key characteristics: he is black, he’s a foreigner, and he’s a eunuch. We are told he is a high official of the Queen of Sheba and is on his way back to Ethiopia from visiting the Temple in Jerusalem.
It’s not clear why he would have been visiting the center of a religion that would have denied him any possibility of being anything other than an observer, an outsider.
In our society where race is such a volatile issue, we note his blackness. Yet, it’s not his race that denies him the right to participate in the rituals of the Temple. Skin colour was not the issue in the 1st-century world that is now is in ours. We see racial tensions exploding throughout America, Baltimore being only the latest outburst. These racial tensions have the particular characteristic of being tensions between communities defined by race and the patriarchal forces of law and order. It’s important to note that it is not only white police officers who come into sharp confrontation with black men, and the communities they live in. The police ranks are filled with many black officers who are caught-up alongside their white colleagues in the increasingly violent confrontation. Law and order and especially the police increasingly find themselves as agents for our patriarchal system’s entrenched institutional racism.
The eunuch is a foreigner. This might have been a greater impediment to his participation in the rituals of a religion that was intensely xenophobic. Yet, Judaism had a place for foreigners who were interested in Jewish teaching and practice. By the 1st-century, many gentiles regularly attended the synagogues and kept many of the ritual customs, while not being technically regarded as Jews. In the New Testament, it is this group who form the audience for much of the apostles, especially Paul’s teaching.
The eunuch was a eunuch. Eunuchs were castrated males appointed to administrative roles within ancient societies. Because they no longer qualified as male within the culture of patriarchy, they posed no threat to patriarchal versions of masculinity. In fact, patriarchy needed eunuchs to occupy the sensitive positions of trust, such as the management and protection of communities of women in the harem. They occupied powerful administrative posts because unlike intact men, they could not supplant the alpha male. Castration removed them as a source for the two principle patriarchal anxieties: the need to control procreation through the subordination of women, and the management of intermale rivalry through strict hierarchies of power. A slight twist in this story is that Ethiopia at this time is still a society ruled by a queen. Having a eunuch as her chief minister is an interesting way for a queen to control the ever-present threat of male power.
Consequently, being a eunuch was the fundamental impediment to this man’s participation in the Temple rituals. Yet, despite this, he was powerfully attracted to the prophetic teaching of the Jewish religion. Within all systems of organised religion, the encounter with the divine is something that despite attempts to domesticate it, remains always beyond control and operates as a prophetic voice continually challenging the structures of patriarchal religion. For while the Temple rituals excluded him on the basis of his sexual orientation, the prophetic call of the divine included him as when Isaiah speaks in 56:3-5:
Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, The Lord hath utterly separated me from his people: neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree. For thus saith the Lord unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant; Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.
In the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, we see the hidden subversion of the patriarchal systems of organised religion by the energy of the divine. This divine energy operates to undermine and challenge attempts to organise religion as an instrument the control of anxiety through policing the dynamics of inclusion and exclususion. In Acts 8 we see the Holy Spirit operating as an instrument of inclusion. Philip willingly baptises this man and having accomplished this major act of inclusion of one hitherto excluded makes clear that the expectations of God’s kingdom contrast to the tyranny of man-made religion.
Today, many believe that the age of patriarchy has, or is passing away. Patriarchy is not necessarily the evil system of oppression as portrayed in much feminist critique. It hurts men as much as it hurts women. I believe we need to see patriarchy and its expression in organised religion as a historical phase in attempting to manage the universal tensions and anxieties around difference. These remain tensions that still distort our world through systemic entrenchment of racism, xenophoia, and homophobia. Today gay men stand in the place of exclusion represented by the eunuch in the ancient world because being gay and male offers a varient on bieng male that confronts the violence of the patriarchal order.
Firstly, women challendged their position of subordination in the male perspective of the world. Then gay men amd women challenged the patriarchal defintion of gendered relationships. A new confrontation looms as transgendered men and women challeneg the patriarchal notion of the very immutability (unchanging nature) of gender.
Isn’t the message of Acts 8 clear, at least for those of us who have ears to hear?