Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Feminism and the Paradox of Free Will

Sue Monk Kidd, advocate of 'Contemplative Spirituality' for 25 years.

We humans do selfish things (we 'sin'), and as a result we suffer and cause others to suffer. Fortunately we have free will to choose a better path and to fix things (find 'salvation').

Conservative Christians - those who believe that the Bible is infallible, inerrant, and all-sufficient - offer a very clear path to 'salvation'.  If you do what the Bible says (accept, surrender to, and profess the 'Message of the Cross' - a courageous act of absolution by proxy), then you will stop suffering and know the 'joy of God's love'.

There is a compelling clarity in this message, and I've seen it in action.  People who are horribly suffering, feeling hopeless and lost, hear this message and are transformed.  Their relief and release is immediate and real.  I've seen that 'joy of God's love' in their eyes, and it's contagious. Their excitement for this spiritual remedy attracts others, and so the message has proliferated lo these past 2000 years.  Hard to argue with the results.

So why would a true-believing 30-something southern Baptist Sunday School Teacher choose to reject Christianity and become a feminist and new-age spiritualist?

And why am I even bringing this up?

Well, that 30-something former southern Baptist was Sue Monk Kidd, and her life story resonates with me.  She's my age, we were born just weeks apart.  And she's gone through a significant spiritual arc, reaching a position near me from the polar opposite end of the spectrum.

Perhaps more to the point of why I bring this up now: She just released a new novel yesterday, 'The Invention of Wings'.  I ordered it today.

Sue's first novel, 'The Secret Life of Bees' was on the New York Times Bestseller list for 2 1/2 years and was made into a motion picture which just happens to be showing on BET tonight at 9PM eastern.  'The Invention of Wings' has been chosen by Oprah Winfrey as the latest novel for her Book Club 2.0, so it's bound to be a best seller too.

In the process of deciding to order this book I did a lot of reading and research about Sue, and I ran into some not-so-complimentary diatribes against her by a small vocal minority within the Conservative Christian community.

Why have these groups picked on her?  Before turning to novel writing, Sue was a regular contributor to the spiritual/inspirational publication 'Guideposts' and she wrote several book-length memoirs discussing her spiritual transformation.  Most notable of these was 'The Dance of the Dissident Daughter'.  I'll let the book review by Amazon Vine Voice 'Kelly (Fantasy Literature)' take it from here:

"Sue Monk Kidd spent approximately her first forty years in the Baptist church, where women are exhorted to submit to their husbands and where she heard the phrase "second in creation, first to sin" countless times. She was disgruntled with the church's stance on women, but never felt moved to rock the boat much, until one day she walked into her daughter's work and found two customers sexually harassing the girl. Something snapped inside her, and she began to question her religion's assumptions about gender and to seek a more feminist spirituality. Her journey took her to ancient mythology, the Gnostic gospels, and to dark places in her own life as her quest caused trouble in her marriage and her religious life. She tells us how she got through her troubles, and her story seems very human and touching. She would feel uneasy, drop the whole subject for months, but her longing always resurfaced. And in the end, she seems to have found peace, and some interesting insights. This book will be interesting to Christian women trying to figure out how to reconcile religion with self-respect. It was also interesting to me, as a pagan of several years and an agnostic before that--it helped me see value in Christianity that I had not seen before."
Sue herself wrote this:
"The minister was preaching. He was holding up a Bible. It was open, perched atop his raised hand as if a blackbird had landed there. He was saying that the Bible was the sole and ultimate authority of the Christian’s life. The sole and ultimate authority.
"I remember a feeling rising up from a place about two inches below my navel. It was a passionate, determined feeling, and it spread out from the core of me like a current so that my skin vibrated with it. If feelings could be translated into English, this feeling would have roughly been the word no!
"It was the purest inner knowing I had experienced, and it was shouting in me no, no, no! The ultimate authority of my life is not the Bible; it is not confined between the covers of a book. It is not something written by men and frozen in time. It is not from a source outside myself. My ultimate authority is the divine voice in my own soul."

Bottom line: Sue was suffering, but the Christian 'narrow gate' to salvation (Matthew 7: 13,14) seemed closed to her.

So what do you do when the simple formulaic road to salvation leads you only to more suffering?  Your first reaction is to rebel.  Thus Sue became a feminist.  Christianity in its liberal forms supports feminism, but Sue's pendulum was still swinging. Her free will took her down less traveled roads.  She found Goddess-consciousness.  She felt the Earth breathing.  The Universe had a beating heart.  And she sensed those immense forces welling within her.  The "pure inner knowing" that Sue talks about is the path called 'Contemplative Spirituality,' and it is a path that the vocal minority of Conservatives that I mentioned above call 'dangerous'.

Given the history that Christianity is obligated to own, I wonder which path is actually more dangerous when abused.  But that's a complex discussion for another time and place.

Free will is a tricky thing. Some day I might get technical with you and write about Newcomb's Paradox. But for now I'll just say that if there is any response from the universe to our presence, then what we choose to do *really* matters.  The seminal example is the Biblical God's experiment: granting Adam and Eve free will.  It was a bold sacrifice, but it breathed real life into the universe.  God only became relevant when he gave up his ability to predict what humans would do (this is the heart of the 'free will paradox').  The arc of the relationship  between God and Man became the ultimate epic quest.  God groped for the best way to guide men toward his hoped-for result, and humans grew in knowledge and wisdom as they stumbled forward toward the same ends.  God's first attempts at persuasion were pretty crude and man's early behavior was pretty stenchy, including the abusive domination of the physically stronger male over the spiritually more centered female.  Result: a lot of people got hurt.  Think Sodom and Gomorrah or Noah's flood.  But God kept trying, for he 'so loved the world.' Finally he gave men Jesus.  I could go on.

The point: when you exercise free will more fully than many conservative Christians are prepared to do (as their God initially was), you can indeed stray and stumble and suffer, but you can also achieve exactly the same level of rewards that the Bible promises without all the baggage and dogma.

By abandoning the well-traveled road, Sue Monk Kidd chose uncertainty.  She spent years establishing her new course.  Salvation down this path is more subtle, takes more work, and so is not quite as overtly alluring.  The 'Joy of Universal Love' is definitely there, but it's quieter and more introspective.

So why am I bringing this up?  Because I've followed similar paths.  For me salvation is more about the Joy of discovery of mankind's emergent purpose than my own, and of helping to chart the course toward that purpose.  I've imagined where this path might ultimately lead in my fictional distant future epic fantasy 'Eden's Womb'.  These descendants of Homo sapiens have accomplished a 'Long Sojourn into Harmony and Balance,' bringing them into concert with the planet's ecosystems. For them the 'narrow gate' is replaced with what they call the 'Noble Course.'  And for them salvation is not ultimately for the individual.  Such a selfish pursuit is more likely to result in false steps and more suffering.  The salvation that is most worth seeking is for humanity as a whole.


  1. It becomes apparent to anyone who views the human scene without a preconceived agenda, that one path works better for some, and other paths work better for others. I am aware that some people think in concrete terms, and others in more abstract ways. Some feel an affinity with nature and others just don't. Some are comfortable in a group or community, and some only in the nuclear family, and others when they are alone. It's as if human beings are a variety of "elements" and each has its own properties or qualities. What happens, though, is that we interact and influence one another. How can this be done without exerting too much influence, that is, being coercive, instead of in a way that permits dialogue across boundaries. T

    The major religions are now afraid of such dialogue. The "one-size- fits-all" religions are therefore artificial and must to a great degree be imposed by "authorities," and there will always be misuse of power. This misuse of power ultimately contradicts everything these religions say is right and moral.

    I agree that our "emergent purpose" is what we pursue. But it is through individual action, As you wrote: "...if there is any response from the universe to our presence, then what we choose to do 'really' matters."

    These are a few thoughts. Thanks for your well-written and perceptive review.

    1. Great contribution, MC. Thank you. I wholeheartedly endorse your point that the kernel of a successful journey is individual action. Pontificating is not enough. We need to ask ourselves every day: 'What can I do to sustain and impel myself, my family, my community ... the universe along the Noble Course.'

      Or put another way, "Be the Change."