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THE MOTHER OF LIFE AND THE GOD OF DEATH

by John Raines

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have become suspicious of male dominated religion, which means I have become suspicious of most religions. The reason is this: religions dominated by men seem to me unnatural. Our first dependency, our first love and gratitude is not directed to males but to mothers. As infants that first, huge world outside of us--a world we absolutely depend upon-is a world that presents itself to us with the breast and the smiling face of a female. That is our first love, our first trust, and our earliest lessons about what's really real. It is the world taught to us by mothers, and it is a world that welcomes us.

In this respect we are much like other animals, except more so. The period of human dependancy is both deeper and longer than others. As anthropologist Clifford Geertz reminds us, "what is astonishing about us is not how much we can learn but how much we have to learn [in order to survive]." Our mothers give birth twice-when we are born and when we are "born again"... into the world of cultural competencies. These competencies include language, but also nonverbal ways of tuning into each other and then staying in tune. Cultural scripts teach us taste (in food, in art, and in preference of body types). We learn the appropriate presentation of ourselves in the everyday world-how and when we are to smile or cry, the choreography of our acted embodiments, how our voice should be voiced. We learn our place in the division of labor, our standing in the social hierarchy, and how to display authority and/or deference. All this learned behavior is the gift of our second birth. It is what we have to learn in order to be, and it is, largely, the gift of Mother. She is our first and most fundamental teacher. All later teachings depend upon the success of this most original church and school. And that is why male dominated and dominating religions seem to me something forced and unnatural.

Our original and orginating memory, although often buried in the unconscious, is the gift of the Mother. And if, as Luther says, "what your heart clings to and relies upon-that is your God," then our first and most natural worship is directed to the Mother/Goddess. Males, ambitious to control and to rule, have always known this, and therefore known that the first task of conquest was to dethrone the Mother and replace her. But replace her with what?

Here's my argument. Replace her with Death. The Mother of Life gets replaced with the God of Death, with the hopes and the fears of what comes after-this-life, and the God who rules that Kingdom.

Like other animals, we are mortal. But blessed and cursed by a powerfully self-reflexive consciousness, we alone foreknow that our own life and all others we love and depend upon will end in death. So death haunts our species in a way that is unnatural to all other animal species except our own. Males determined to rule have colonized and monopolized this shadow of death, and the fears and hopes directed to that Other Side. Males have renamed Mother, not as the source of life but as the instrument of death. The key to the dethronement of Mother is to blame her for death. Yes, she gives us birth, but only to a dying life. Think of Eve and her apple, or Shiva as both life giver and destroyer of life, or women's bodies in Buddhism and desire and maya (illusion)-the dangerous female, simultaneously seductive, polluted and polluting.

Our human species has a naturally unnatural preoccupation with death. All other species, and we humans too in our earliest and first world, cling to Mother, to the symbol and effective mediator of life. Male dominated religions turn this life into a mere testing place, a place filled with temptations and illusions, a place of disease, decay and dying-and turns our hearts and minds instead to life-beyond-this-life, to heaven and hell, to karma and reincarnation, or to the land of the Ancestors.

Having blamed the female for temptation, for illusion, for pollution and that most ultimate pollution which is death, elite males have attempted and mostly succeeded in monopolizing that most powerful and power-conveying reality of all called trust, called attachment and love, called gratitude and praise. Males have used the Gifts of Mother to steal from Mother her own children. We trust because we must and would trust everything if we only could. And we first learned to trust-to enter energetically into that powerful, wider world around us that then empowers us with the tools of cultural competence-we learned that first world as a world that invited us in and welcomed us. And it was and is the face, the voice, the breast of the female that greets us. But Her Face will be replaced by His Face, Her hands replaced by His Hands, Her Feeding by His Feeding, and Her Life by His Life-after-Death--Mother replaced by "Heavenly Father."

This is the first, the original and the most consequential violence directed at women by men. And it is why I find male dominated religion (which is to say almost all religions) unnatural. For those who would reduce violence against women, the place to begin is where it all began-in the religious expropriation of the Mother of Life by the God of Death.

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The Reverend Dr. John Raines is Full professor of religion at Temple University; past chair of its Religion Deptartment; a Methodist Minister; a board member of The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics; the author of many books.

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