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Sons of God

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So it’s Thursday, and I’m back here in the lab where the grammar students come, but I’m early, and they’re not here yet.  I figure I’ve got about twenty minutes before the tidal wave arrives.  In the meantime, I’m actually in a pretty good position to think.

Except that I haven’t had any sleep, and the other cat–the one that doesn’t hide shoes–is now becoming enamored of stealing and wearing underwear.  Women’s underwear, to be specific.  I’ll be sitting in the living room popping the remote in the vain hope that one of the news channels will have something on it besides blither, and in will come Creamsicle, wearing something nylon and lacy over his head as if he’s about to be married in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  And looking incredibly proud of himself, too.

There must be a reason for this.  I mean, they’re very strange cats.  They like odd food, like Honey Bunches of Oats and rice and green Manzanilla (sp?) olives.  They’re always trying to mark my older son, as if he were a piece of territory they both want exclusivity rights to.  The smart one–that would be Creamsicle–also knows how to open doors and get the faucet in the kitchen sink to produce water.

Which is sort of a way to segue into the thing I mentioned last time, the idea–espoused passionately by a lot of people, including people I like to read, like Richard Dawkins–that human beings should not get too full of themselves.  That we’re “just another animals.”

Yesterday, I said that all moral codes begin in the way in which their makers define what it means to be “human.”  And some of those definitions are very restrictive.  Early, or earlyish, literate societies have a real tendency to define human as ‘beloning to US” and anybody not belonging to us–anybody of a different tribe or religion or race or whatever–as not actually human at all.

It can be quite a shock to see the way the word “race” and its translations are used in, say, classical Greece and Rome, or imperially ascendant Babylon, or even Shakespearean England.  A lot of times, these societies used “race”–and assumed an innate, inborn difference of being–for what we would call ethnicity, or nationality, or religion.  Even Dickens, writing well into the Victorian period, used “race” to designate professions, as in the “race of lawyers” or the “race of bookkeepers,” both of which show up in Bleak House.

The idea that all men were united in a common humanity appears first in Greek philosophy, and that in and of itself was an important breakthrough in ethical philosophy, and in ethical practice.  The idea that all men and women and foreigners and religions and social classes are united in a common humanity appears first in Christianity, in the famous quate from St. Paul:  You are neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.  You are all one in Christ Jesus.  You are all sons of God.

Okay, I did that from memory, and I might have gotten the order of the clauses wrong.  But the important thing here is to notice just how incredibly radical this statement is.  A certain kind of “feminist scholar” likes to protest this quote and declare that “sons of God” is sexist.  A movement to use “inclusive language” has raged through various Biblical translations and renders this quote “children of God” instead.

It’s the kind of boneheaded assininity that makes me completely crazy.  And no, I don’t know if “assininity” is a word, and I have no idea if I’ve spelled it right even if it is one.  This computer is lovely in a lot of ways, but I don’t know how to get the type big enough so that I can actually see it.

I’m getting old.

Here’s the thing, though–St. Paul was not saying that all people were “children” of God for a very good reason.  In the ancient world, and especially in Rome, all children were  not created equal.  Boys could inherit their father’s estates.  Girls could not.

What Paul is saying here is that even women have now become heirs.  They are fully and equally entitled to their Father’s estate.  Had he said “children of God,” he would have been implying nothing more than that women would have the same second-class status they already did have in the Roman Empire, and everywhere else. 

This is not a minor thing.  It is the first instance anywhere, in anly literate society, even hinting at the possibility that women deserved, or could be granted, full moral and social equality with men. 

And yes, I do know that early Christianity did not actually practice the ideal Paul set out, and that even Paul himself didn’t practice it, but that doesn’t really matter.  Change takes a long time.  It took longer in the days when communication was difficult and intermittant.

The fact is that ideas have consequences, and that idea had huge consequences for the development of Western Civilization.  Aristotle didn’t think of it–hell, he didn’t even get far enough to consider male slaves the moral equals of freemen–and neither did Cicero.  There is no non-Western civilization that managed to come up with it, either.  Anywhere you find the assumption that women are the moral and social equals of men, what you’re looking at is either a Western society, or a society that has somehow come into contact with a Western society. 

And this idea is still considered self-evidently wrong by quite a few non-Western societies.  We’re all publicly indignant at the practice, in China, of resorting to abortion when the babies to be born are going to be girls, but China is hardly the only society in the world where that particular choice is common.  When I was living in the UK, maternity hospitals and ob/gyns refused to give the results of amniocentesis to anybody but the mother herself, fearing that if husbands or mothers in law or other relatives heard that the fetus was female, they’d pressure the mother into aborting it.  Women wanting abortions in Britian must go before a board, make a case, and have their decision okayed by a panel of doctors.  That is supposed to guard against just this kind of thing.  In practice, it didn’t quite work.

This is not just “prejudice,” it’s a full blown disavowal of the full humanity of women.  Nikos Kazantzakis, the Greek novelist who wrote The Last Temptation of Christ, growing up in a society still under control of the Muslim Turks, was never able to shake the assumptions that society taught him.  In the middle of his autobiography, talking about his time spent in Paris, he said, “I have never gotten used to the Western notion that women have souls.”   Souls. 

Christianity did not have to be taught that women had souls.  It assumed it from the beginning, and for all the long years it took for this idea to reach its logical conclusions, the fact is that without this idea nobody does reach that particular conclusion.  It’s one of the two or three most significant ideas in the history of the world, and it changes everything.

And not just because it means that Sarah Palin can run for President.

Moral codes derive from their definitions of what it means to be a human being.  All Western moral codes from the establishment of the Christian Church in Rome assume the moral equality of men and women and of people of different classes and social statuses and of people of different nationalities.

And this decision–this inclusiveness in the definition of “human”–is advocated just as strongly by secular thinkers who sincerely and passionately believe that “nothing good” ever came out of religion.

Or, as Christopher Hitchens put it, “Religion destorys everything.”

I’d better point out something here, before I get a little waterfall of mail welcoming me to the fold–I’m an atheist.  I’ve been an atheist as long as I can remember.  I came a family that consisted of atheists and people who didn’t care.  I do not believe in God.

I do, however, believe in ideas, and I especially believe in this idea.  The world would be a much worse place without it, just as it would be a much uglier place without Hildegarde’s music and Michaelangelo’s paintings.

The Greeks believed that men were halfway between animals and Gods.  St. Paul believed that men and women could and should aspire to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Let’s start there, and somehow end up with Miss Jane Marple.

Written by janeh

October 9th, 2008 at 10:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Sons of God'

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  1. I know people who object to the claim that the US is a Christian nation. They conveniently ignore the fact that John Locke, A treatsie on Government, is built on the idea that all humans have rights because they were all created by God.

    And the idea of Natural Law goes back at least to Aquinas.


    9 Oct 08 at 6:07 pm

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