Heaven’s Glass Ceiling

The Washington Post; by George Davis; October 3, 2008

After the long struggle of Senator Hillary Clinton to become the Democratic nominee for President, and the selection of Governor Sarah Palin as the Republican nominee for Vice President, most Americans are spending a lot of time thinking about ending gender discrimination and breaking glass ceilings.

Personally, I wonder if women, generally, can have gender equality on earth without having it in heaven. As long as we anthropomorphize the creative force of the universe, the Supreme Being, as male, is it possible for a woman to really feel equal?

When I was a kid I used to wonder what happened to our Mother in Heaven; and if we have an only begotten son, why not an only begotten daughter? To bring this up now is not simply a matter of trying to improve the relative status of women on earth. I think that the world in general would be better off if we stopped thinking that there is only a Father in Heaven to please.

Pleasing mother and pleasing father are two very different earthly tasks. Why wouldn’t humankind be set off on a different course if we in the Abrahamic tradition stopped trying to please only this implacable, vindictive, angry, warlike father figure?

I was born and raised Christian. I’ve never felt anti-Christian. There are likely few families in America with more Christian ministers than mine. Back into African-American slavery my great grandfather was an escaped slave/preacher. My grandfather, father, and uncle were preachers. So also were my father-in-law, mother-in-law, and a brother-in-law. My brother is one now, and so are a couple of cousins.

As a child I remember praying to a male God; but in those small churches in rural Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, divinity had a decidedly feminine feel. In my memories of childhood the more reverential figures were women – my mother and the women in my father’s churches who provided the bounty of board dinners thenceforth, it seemed, and forever more.

Our fathers did not have the earthly power that white men had; and so it was the heavenly power invoked by our mothers that seemed to surround the community with protection. Our strongest experience of divine power came from the feminine side of divine nature.

It was not our father’s but our mother’s spirit that dwelled inside us. It was her love and concern that we did not want to betray. It was her voice that we argued with internally. To the image of her we called when we needed help. To it we cried when we were afraid or alone.

And at our greatest moments of success, say on the football field, we wave at the TV camera, “Hi, Mom!” We are saying, in essence, “See what I did? Touchdown!” It is her we want to please. It is the mother-figure who says, as my mother used to say: “Stop fighting, learn to play with other children. You can’t have all the toys yourself, you selfish little buzzard.”

A woman whose father has been in a nursing home for decades told me her father said he has never heard a dying person call out for his or her father. Calling out to mother from time into eternity seems be more natural, and seems to be more needed in this era.

Eventually I moved out of the enclosed, warm, nurturing matrifocal community of my birth because that community seemed so besieged. I moved into the Officers Corp of the United States Air Force, during the Vietnam War, from there to the Washington Post, the New York Times and several elite Eastern universities as student and professor. In these places I did sense that the God prayed to was definitely “the man upstairs.”

But still I wonder, since God is an anthropomorphism, aren’t there some advantages to our praying: “Our Mother in heaven, hallowed be Your name, Your kingdom come, Your will be done . . .” We can all imagine how different the world would be if most of us prayed that way half the time.

George Davis is professor emeritus at the Newark Campus of Rutgers University. His new novel, The Melting Points, will be published in 2009.

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