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'The God of Small Things' God, Women and the Question of Power

'The God of Small Things'
God, Women and the Question of Power

by Veronica Brady

Basic ( 2000), pp. 20 - 27

My title is, of course, the title of Arundhati Roy’s novel, significantly about the ‘tragic fate of a family which tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how’ about the clash between the’Big God’ who howled like a hot wind and demanded obeisance but ultimately, so Roy says, ‘has nowhere to go’ [ 1],and the ‘Small God’ who lives deep in things, who is often the ‘God of Loss’ but is also one of the ‘sugar-dusted twin midwives of ...dream’. [2]

In a way this sums up my argument about what is at issue in ‘one of the most damnable and hopeless fights that the end of modernity has seen’ [3], the argument over the ordination of women in the Catholic Church. What we are arguing about, I suggest, is not authority - both sides acknowledge and take their stand on the authority and will of God -but about the kind of God we worship and the nature of the community of faith, hope and love gathered around in promise and in God’s Spirit which we call the Church.

Our starting point is the hope -indeed the belief -that God continues to work in history, that revelation is not closed but that, as Church, we are being shaped by the address of God - a process in which God gives and we respond.

The crisis we face, however, is that there are different models of the ways in which the believing community responds. . The Roman position, it seems, removes the Church somewhat from history, centering it on a point it takes to be more or less timeless, the administration of the sacraments and the Church order which supports it, which is hierarchical in structure and ‘in the name of Christ is governed by men’. [4]

Within that structure there are, so to speak, two classes: those who teach, administer and control the sacraments and govern’ the community; and the rest of us, the ‘simple faithful’ whose task is to listen and to obey. Amongst this second class, the ‘laity’ there is another division, however: that between women and men. Some men are called to ‘the upper class’ the priesthood, but no woman can be, simply by reason of the fact that she is a woman - this, we are told, is by divine decree.

Authority thus tends to, flow in one direction only, from the top down; and theology becomes what one theologian calls ‘a tiresome matter of being in the right’[5] Rather than humble and,_prayerful exploration of the divine mystery as it folds amongst us.

This, of course, is the model with which many of us grew up. But for an increasing number of people it no longer corresponds to their sense of God’s revelation to us in Jesus. Instead of being the place where we encounter this revelation, the institutional Church seems to block access, being no longer in tune with the ‘signs of the times’. This is a key point. As Christian Duquoc puts it, today for many the urgent question is no longer ‘Who is God?’ but ‘Where is God?’; or, to put it another way, ‘the essence of God is no longer on the side of objectivity but on the side of desire’. [6]

Nor is there anything suspicious in this position when we reflect on the proposition that ‘God is the one from whom we must expect all good and in whom we can take refuge in all our needs’. [7] For many people, women especially, the high Papal model of Church does not offer that inclusive and generous vision of community open to the variety of gifts described in Ephesians 4 - some of these gifts cannot be exercised by women - nor does it witness to the new, more inclusive vision of humanity Paul describes in Galatians in which there is neither Jew or Gentile, man or woman, slave or free but all are one in Christ. It does not, in other words, respond to their deepest longings for the new life promised us in Christ and in his Spirit.

To repeat, then, ours is not a position of disobedience. Indeed, it is the opposite, since the root meaning of ‘obedience’ comes from the Latin word ‘to listen’. Faith, (commitment to realities at present unseen) is by definition an ambiguous matter - as the Council of Trent reminded us when it declared: ‘No one can know with the certainty of faith that he [she] has obtained the grace of God’, [8] and ambiguity is an inescapable dimension of being human.

Richard Cote comments: Life ...flows from springs both clear and muddy. Hence all excessive ‘purity’ lacks vitality. A constant striving for clarity and differentiate i o n means a proportionate loss of vital intensity precisely because the muddy elements are excluded. [9] Faith is a risky business. But we are prepared to take the risk, to believe in the One who came that we might have life and have it more abundantly.

None of this denies the existence of religious authority: no one, as Patrick.White makes Hurtle Duffield say, is her ‘own dynamo’. Personally, I accept Karl Rahner’s proposition that ‘the religious community of the Church must exist as a reality independent of my subjectivity’ and that Christian religiosity is not yet religious unless it includes the concrete and social reality of a church which is independent of me and is not simply dependent on my preferences.[10]

At the same time this reality ‘is always found and mediated only and through the existential decision of my own conscience’. [11] For this, ‘church really has to be church’, [12] that is, the community in which ‘God triumphs in his victorious presence and communication of truth’ [13] lives by this presence and so witnesses to the saving power of the Gospel. This is the God who is a’midwife of dreams’.

But the Church in which half the community, simply by reason of the fact that they are women, is debarred from the fullest range of service to and authority within that community and through it to the world can hardly be said to do so - God’s gifts are not given by measure or by reason of biology. In fact it may be a counter-sign - one might even associate it for instance, with Roy’s ‘Big God’ who is ‘impelled by feelings that were primal yet paradoxically wholly impersonal’, feelings of contempt born of inchoate, unacknowledged fear - ‘civilisation’s fear of nature, men’s fear of women, power’s fear of powerlessness’. [14]

Authority which demands obeisance and refuses dialogue, and takes its stand on a fixed and dogmatic position, does not witness very convincingly to the presence of God who came amongst us as one whose power appeared as powerlessness and whose wisdom as foolishness. It is not easy to see the present institutional Church as driven by ‘the irresistible pathos [of God] working for the- oppressed and humiliated, moving them towards liberation; Abba who in his uncondi tional goodness is a house with room for everyone’. [15]

Mercy, compassion, openness and love are the notes of this God who has a room for everyone. At best, canon law, dogma and machinery of ecclesiastical organisation are means to this end, though at the moment they seem to many of us to block it. Maybe, to quote Rahner again, ‘many times it would be better if Christians knew less about certain details of the Catholic catechism but grasped the ultimate and decisive questions in a genuine and profound way - questions like God, neighbour and prayer’. [ 16]

Ambiguity, as we have said, is not necessarily a bad thing. A faith which is taken for granted and does not adapt, Rahner goes on, but relies on ‘a homogeneous religious milieu common to everyone’ can be dangerous, since ‘faith ... must ever be won anew and is always in process of being formed’. [17] The debate over the ordination of women and thus of the nature of the Church is surely part of this process.

So we return to the question of God. It is possible to create a God to one’s own image - and we would all do well - to reflect on Luther’s words:

To have a God is nothing else than to believe in him with all our hearts. [But] trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and idol. If faith and trust are right, then your God is also the right God; and again, if your trust is false and wrong you do not have the right God. For faith and God hold close together. Whatever your heart clings to and relies upon probably is your God. [18]

The God who came among us in Jesus and continues to come in his Spirit is a God with the distinct preference for small people and things.

Jesus also interrogated conventional notions of power and did not fit very well into the religious or social institutions or conventions of his day, being more concerned to raise up the lowly and confound the strong, in the present context it is also worth noting that, unusually, women played an important part in his circle.

To ‘live in Christ’, then, may be more a matter of seeing ‘things through the eyes of God’s passion and anguish’ for those who suffer or are humiliated or oppressed, of being concerned with ‘the large human questions ... the weight’y matter of justice, mercy and righteousness’ than of preserving the status quo. [19]

If this is so, then one test of obedience may be the extent to which we ‘see things through the eyes of God’s passion and anguish’ for those who suffer, are humiliated or oppressed, and focus on ‘the large human questions ... the weighty matter of justice, mercy and righteousness’ [20] and not just on church order

The question of women’s place in the Church is not ‘trendy’. It. has to do with the challenge the God whose best simple definition maybe ‘interruption’ offers to the believing community. Women are among the poorest and most oppressed and it is hardly a sign of that interruption when those ‘in power’ in the Church deny equality and continue to subordinate them to men. Church order, as we have said, is not an end in itself. The divine reality is dynamic not static ‘God’s Being is in coming ... [and God] goes on ways to [Godself] even when they lead to other places, even to that which is not God’. [21]

God cannot be confined within a particular circle of experts, theologians or ecclesiastics. The God who is in Jesus is a God who ‘struggles against conventional godhead’ [22] and does not belong only to a particular group of ecclesiastics or theologians.

To conclude, the doctrine of the Church is not the central truth of Christianity [23], but the doctrine of God is, and I have been arguing that this is what we should be debating. It is a traditional Catholic approach, moreover, to bring the best of contemporary thought to bear on such issues - grace, this tradition likes to say, perfects nature.

Our conception of God will always be imperfect but the logic of the Incarnation suggests that it should be informed by contemporary thought - that is why Thomas Aquinas, for instance, is such a seminal figure. The notion of a hierarchical society closed in on itself and intent on ritual at the expense of issues of justice and love is, to put it kindly, anachronistic; and the emphasis on dogma and prepositional truth sits very uneasily in a world of contemporary science and mathematics, to say nothing of the impact of new technologies and globalisation; it hardly seems to be responding to the signs and needs of the times.

The place of women in the Church is not a peripheral issue, not just the concern of a few ‘disgruntled and rebellious feminists’. What is at stake is the image of the Church itself, whether or not it is to app ear as a saving and prophetic community which offers the hope of a richer humanity and a better world.

Who and what we worship may be the crucial question of survival as we move into the new millennium and it may well be the case that ‘there will be no new community on earth until there is a fresh articulation of who God is’. [24]

It is profoundly ironic as well as distressing, of course ‘that the controversy centres on the Eucharist, the new covenant of love and service, model of a new society based on mutuality and service of one another. But that is why the issue is so crucial. Jesus, as we know, was not a priest in the present sense, part of an institutionalised sacramental life in a hierarchical organisation. The covenant he made with us in that first Eucharist was, in the words of Brueggemann ‘defiantly and buoyantly against every imperial definition of reality’ [25], a reminder of the sovereign freedom of God to be God in God’s own way and of our call to share in that freedom of the life of God.

(Delivered at the 5th. National Conference for the Ordination of Catholic Women, held at Burgmann College, Canberra ACT, Oct. I-3, 1999)

1 Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, Harper Collins, London, 1997 p220

2 ibid., p. 224.

3 Hermann Haring, ‘Not Authorized by Jesus? An Analysis of the Roman Document’

Concilium 1999/3, p. 3.

4 ibid., p. 4.

5 ibid., P. 7.

6 Christian Duyuoc, “Who is god” becomes ‘Where ìs God?" The Shift in A Question’ Concilium 1992/3, p 3.

7 ibid., p. 1.

B Richard Cote, ‘God sings In The Night: Ambiguity As An Invitation To Believe, Concilium, 1992/4, p. 95.

9 ibid., p. 47.

10 Karl Rahner, The Foundations Of Christian Faith, Crossroad, New York, 1985, p. 355.

11 ibid., p. 356.

12 ibid.

13 ibid., p. 383.

14 Roy, op cit., p. 308.

15 Kees Waaijman, ‘Spirituality As Transformation Demands A dynamic Structural Approach’, Studies In Spirituality 1/I, 1991, p. 31.

16 Rahner, op cit., p. 1.

17 ibid., p. 5.

18 Duquoc, op cit., p. 1.

19 Walter Brueggemann, A Social Reading of The Old Testament, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1994, p. 48.

20 ibid.

21 Eberhard Jungel, God As The Mystery Of The World, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1974, p.159 .

22 Brueggernann, op cit., p. 47

23 Rahner, op cit., p. 32.

24 Brueggernann, op cit., p. 47. 25 ibid., p. 52

24 Brueggernann, op cit., p. 47.

25 ibid., p. 52

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