“You have no power here! Begone! – before someone drops a house on you too!”
Long, long ago there were healing women, women wise with the knowledge of herbs, of sound and smell and taste, of birthing and guidance and support. Their various mindsets are probably not ones that we can fully understand or inhabit today, although an undeniable hunger for their possible stories is evident in our fictions. History may be written by the winners, but speculative imagination is open to all.
Such women had an important role in small communities, until their role was re-interpreted. A strong patriarchal movement, armed with the authority of a monotheistic God, saw women with any sort of power as a threat. Their own stories cast women as inferior and sinful and subordinate to men. Women were no longer allowed to own their own land, and their bodies were to be thought of – and treated accordingly – as property. Powerful women, women with any sort of unapproved education, were to be disempowered: by making them seem subhuman (and/or superhuman), by cutting off ties to their kinship networks, and by casting doubts on their existential right to exist, such that communities would feel that it was wrong to “consort” with them. Women, and especially intelligent women, became the enemy (All our “wars” do the same thing – “othering” the human as less-than-human).
The outcast has power, too, of a sort, but after such events as the Inquisition and the infamous Witch Hunts, the burnings at the stake (how much worse than a crucifixion), the drownings of “water tests” and the like, much of the understanding and knowledge that might have been accessed later – through whatever methods of succession they might have had – was probably lost. Women seeking to reclaim the figure of the goddess, latter-day herbalists, Wiccans and witches, and all the overlapping seekers who blend them and other perspectives in their own attempts to balance the spirit, all have in common a yearning for the denied and nearly exterminated appreciation of the female principle, whatever that might look like. Because of this yearning, and the inherent oppositional and defensive position, there is sometimes a reversion to awkward and unfair gender binaries, but how can there be spiritual balance and integration and movement of all, even now, when male and female have been out of touch for so long and in such alienating ways?
I start with the ancient healing woman who became cast in the role of the witch because I don’t think we’ve come to terms with gender, knowledge, and healing. Our cures are poisons, our poisons are cures. It’s all in the amount, it’s all in discernment, it’s all in complexity. It’s hard to convey, and our stories are inadequate. Our mythos doesn’t function. Our logos is a weapon. And so, the vision of the ancient woman is a comfort to me. It carries things that cannot be conveyed otherwise, like music does. Like art.
Spiritual traditions, despite their wings of the horrible, all have a heart, no matter how it might be eclipsed, in the love and compassion that is the wellspring of all insight and communion. Every sacred book has its wisdom in this deep truth, no matter how its other pages may incite cruelty. It is the choice of each community and of each person to decide whether to take the paragraphs of the ancient libraries as an excuse for their dark side to oppress and to kill, or to read them as stories that illustrate the truth of the dangers of the human soul, in order to propel consciousness into a different space – the space of empathy, and discernment. Perhaps there’s more than one reason that you never hear the story from the point of view of the Canaanite.
Science and medicine have had moments of confrontation with religious communities – even when they have been members themselves. I think of Galileo, Mendel and Darwin – all of whom proposed understandings that seemed to undermine established teachings and were seen as a threat. On the other hand, the churches have had times of amazing institutional support – founding universities, building and supporting hospitals. The religious world is not monolithic of course, but eventually it seems that scientific discoveries are incorporated into religious understandings in some way – and the hanging sense that religious views don’t change is an illusion. The very existence of all the subgroups and diverse views among just the American protestant wing of the christian religion exemplify that, but even the more ancient religions include a spectrum of views, ranging across flavors militant, orthodox, literal, evangelist, conservative, scholarly, social-activist, meditative, welcoming. To me, the religious brand is less important than this kind of sub-grouping. From what I can tell, the fanatical haters are much the same across all religions, as are the compassionate lovers.
If God’s will is understood as something that is so fragile as to be easily undermined by human knowledge, things get dark. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity” as the poet W.B. Yeats succinctly put it. Those who believe they are representing God’s will seek to impose it as though it required their assistance. In this view, there is suspicion towards the cosmos, and paranoia about non-members.
If God’s will is understood more as “how it’s going to be” regardless of human decision, free will and action, then that is not threatened by much of anything, much less by better understanding our universe and our own niche within it. In this view, there is trust in the cosmos, and acceptance of both our sufferings and our various beings – whether in the form of women, of doctors – whether in extending the life of the aged, or by treating addiction or depression or a heart condition, or using birth control to better plan for thriving families. How do we know God’s will isn’t for humans to learn to make better decisions? Jesus was a healer. There is no reason in this perspective not to try, and no reason to throw away the gifts that we have been given.
If people believe both these at once, or in a syncopated rhythm, then odd things start to happen. They sometimes take on the role of God for others. Preachers and politicians believe that they speak for God. Doctors become arrogant, scientists mistake the model for the reality, communities project both good and evil onto the “what is” such that they cannot accept either the strengths or the weaknesses of science and medicine and religion and politics. Science becomes another “faith” and scientific method is considered discardable – or science becomes a perfect totality rather than a self-correcting and evolving set of theories (narratives that attempt to explain replicable experimental results). Religion inserts itself as scientific description and loses the deeper truths of its narratives. Some people become fearful and defensive, others violent. Lies become more acceptable. Truths lose the “scene” in which they have meaning, and are used as weapons.
H.L. Mencken describes the “inferior man” as one who (among other things) lives in fear: “The one permanent emotion of the inferior man is fear – fear of the unknown, the complex, and the inexplicable.” Such a man – or woman – will always fear anyone that that is perceived as different. He/she feels others must be dominated, controlled, and forced to be predictable, to follow commands, so that his/her own inferiority remains concealed, even from himself or herself. I was careful here to include both genders, but…
It’s especially disheartening to me that many women can’t see the various attempts to put women back in the box for what they are, but I have hope and confidence because of the many women (and men!) who observe injustice and who work, each in their own way, to be themselves and to encourage others. I think that despite our regressions here, we will continue to move ahead – onwards and upwards. We could have been much more. Maybe we still will be.
In some ways, it all goes back to how comfortable a community is with the idea that humans are allowed to explore knowledge, to ask questions, and to act on their current understandings. Some seem complacent about having knowledge of good and evil – or at least their internal definitions of such are rarely questioned – but the return of the repressed haunts them. Who do they have to control to maintain their community? Are women who use birth control witches? Sluts? Good way to rein them in, but go big! Shouldn’t insurance companies control them? Shouldn’t employers tightly define coverage?
But why should an employer define coverage for a person on “moral grounds”? What a nasty mess. First of all – the implicit ideology that it implies – that the worker has taken the previous role of the woman-as-property – is about the best evidence for the reality of the class war (and the rise of the dominionist theocrats) that I’ve seen. Beyond that, if you know anything about the extremes of non-intervention against a fixed idea of “God’s will,” you are aware of the many deaths resulting from refusing blood transfusions, and from childbirth, and from replacing medical treatment with prayer, and – in extreme cases – all of the injuries and deaths resulting from various pathologies centered on delusions about what God might want someone to do or not do (assuming for a moment that all claims about God are not delusional or at least inadequate). All armies claim that God is on their side, after all, don’t they? As George Carlin noted, someone has got to be wrong. Could it be – ALL of them?
Suppose your insurance company or business is owned by someone who thinks that your health issue is a punishment from God, and that in his/her/their judgment you don’t deserve treatment? Do you honestly believe this wouldn’t happen? We can vote with our feet by not working for such employers – if we’re in a position to do so – not everyone is. Over half this country is currently living in poverty, or very close to it. The “job creators” are still much more likely to skim the profits off the top and take them off to the Caymans, or Dubai, or to invest in global pursuits outside the American economy. In America, consumer rights across the board is the only fair position. If a religious community doesn’t want members of their flock to use science – however the subset of “wrong” medicine and science is currently defined, let them convince each to their own conscience. Sure, some will be condemned to an early and perhaps unjustified death, but at least then it was their own choice.
The roles of doctor and priest and priestess and healer and witch are intertwined. Each uses psychology. There are placebo effects. There is authority, and there is scapegoating. Sometimes overblown claims about power take hold, and abuses are legion. But each also draws on the will of the wounded, the will to live, the will to heal.
Perhaps each could help the other because of this, if they ever would. If healing has physical and spiritual aspects, and if psychology helps, and if there are different constellations of knowledge with overlapping themes and recurring narratives, maybe science can learn to tell better stories, maybe religious groups can embrace the totality of the human to a better spirit, maybe there can be better integration, better education, better cooperation, to promote the general welfare for the betterment of all.
But the power corruption is deep, deep, deep. I don’t forget the witches burning, the lynchings and the attempted genocides, especially when I read the comments of our contemporary brownshirts, fascists, and inquisitors, our bigots, our smug self-righteous, our haters.
I stand against the haters, in the way of the statue crying. It is almost impossibly sad. The utter, utter waste of it. The ignorance and greed and insecurity that it represents is such a huge loss to us all.
We’ve all come a long way, baby. Women and men, of all religions and races and kinds. But the backlash is severe.
In politics, the framing is always about our choice – but the choice is deeper than who we think might be best at representing our country’s values or our interests. The choice is really much more about who we choose to be – given our scientific knowledge, our spiritual path, our understanding of the human, our hopes for the future. Do we bother to seek a deeper understanding? Are we more comfortable with being told who we are and what God expects us to do, or not do, or do we see the acts of questioning about our meaning and constructing our character as life’s continuing project? Are we arrogant and oppressive and destructive, or are we working alone and together to try to make our communities, our nation, and our world a better place for thriving? For…all…the people.
When the healers and the knowers and the questioners become the enemy, it’s a dark dark place to live. That’s why I light a candle, and write, and smell the flowers, and commune with the trees – in hopes that a slight echo might come back across the ethereal plane to give me strength. Perhaps in turn my little spark might help to jump the gap in our country’s synapses, and echo forward to our daughters and sons of the future.
Think deeply, and just as hard as you can. Appreciate. Pay attention. Ask questions. Love.