An illuminating look of the role of women in religion and spirituality – past, present, and future.
History or herstory?
Our culture has been strongly influenced by three major religions, all patriarchal, ie. male-centred. Since the time of Abraham – patriarch of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – women have been baby bearers and child rearers. Rarely have they been spiritual leaders.
Women were amongst Jesus’ closest followers.
There are many stories in the gospels of his respect and full acceptance of them. In a culture that kept women subordinate and separate, even in the temple, he treated women as of equal value with men. He willingly spoke to women in public, and some of his deepest teachings were to the Samaritan woman at the well, when he spoke of God as spirit, available to us all wherever we are [John 4]. Many women were in Jesus’ band of traveling disciples, [Luke 8:1–3], and it was some of these women, lead by Mary Magdalene, who went to anoint his body on resurrection morning [Luke 23]. For a woman to be as intimate with Jesus as Mary Magdalene, suggests that she may have been his wife.
Women also played a major role in Paul’s ministry, and in some instances convened new groups of followers of ‘The Way’, to whom Paul spoke so eloquently [Acts]. As he toured on, he wrote letters of encouragement to these groups, acknowledging the role of these women, letters now included in the Christian Bible. Modern Bible scholars have shown that the letters where Paul condemned women to subordinate roles were written long after Paul’s death, in fact at a later stage of the development of the early Christian church, which, of course, was not a church at all in Paul’s time.
Suppression of women
How ironic that the religion that developed in Jesus’ name ignored the role of women, and became patriarchal to the point of only men being eligible to be priests or hold major leadership roles. This disempowering of women and suppression of female potential carried through all levels of society, designating women as the ‘weaker sex’. This church-led discrimination and suppression of women has resulted in the struggle for recognition by women globally in more recent times, in every aspect of life.
A new way emerges
Since the 19th century there has been a movement away from established religion. This often results in total rejection of belief in any aspect of ‘God’ and the teachings of Jesus. For many, it has been a search for spiritual belief outside the ‘church’. In the USA in the later 1800s, several inspirational women speakers offered the teachings of Jesus without the dogma of the church. They were part of the New Thought movement, which is really ‘old thought’, as taught by Jesus. This attracted thousands of women as well as men, as this philosophy empowered everybody, regardless of gender or any other differences. This New Thought movement has spread throughout the western world as the new spirituality.
By this century, the ‘change your thoughts, change your life’ inspirational teachings of various New Thought groups, including positive thinking and use of affirmations, has gone out into the culture and is now widely used and accepted. We see this influence in movies such as The Secret, personalities such as Oprah Winfrey, and many popular books. It is not New Age, but a new way of finding the empowering spiritual aspect within our own being.
Women at Unity
As a Unity minister, I love the fact that Unity was started by a woman, Myrtle Fillmore, in the 1880s. She had been diagnosed with T.B., then an incurable disease, and was expected to die within months. However, she sought out speakers on the new wave of positive thinking. Through the process she learned that hereditary influences can be overcome by changing old beliefs. This has been confirmed in our time with DNA proving to be only one part of our inheritance; our lifestyle and beliefs are a major influence on our health and happiness.
Myrtle ‘cured’ herself of TB. She then went on to establish a prayer ministry that has continued to this day. With her husband Charles, she has founded the Unity ministries which are now world-wide. There have always been more women ministers than men, and this continues to be so today.
The first book published by Unity, in the 1890s, was by a woman. Dr Emilie Cady was a homeopathic doctor and many decades ahead of her time in her book Lessons in Truth. She taught that we are all spiritual beings, and all good is ours to claim, through our thoughts and words. This little book is still available, on paper or online, and continues to inspire and uplift.
Statistics showing the drop in religious attendance do account for the thousands of Australians who have found other spiritual avenues. LivingNow offers many examples of spiritual women who share their understanding and their tools for healing with men and women.
There is no longer any ‘reason’ for any woman to feel “lesser in the eyes of God”. It is better for men, too, to be relieved of the burden of inequality. And to be able to participate on equal terms with women in their homes, work, sport and leisure. How lucky we all are to live in this century!
- Unity Brisbane Facebook Prayer
- Marcus Borg and Bishop John Selby Spong make interesting reading on the Christian Bible. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg
- Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World by John Shelby Spong
- Evolution of the Word – Marcus Borg
- Saving Jesus from the Church – Robin Meyers
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