“Pay Attention! That’s Not What I Said,” Says God
By Rajeev Rambob
If we continue to fail as partners with God by denying women their rightful place in religious life, professional life, family life, anywhere in life, we will never attain justice.
As someone who grew up being taught that the King James Bible and the New International Version were “God’s literal and inerrant word”—and that nothing should be added or taken away—I can imagine myself reading the title of this essay thirty years ago and gasping, and then skipping over this “blasphemy!” I would likely have warned my friends against it, and maybe even discarded the entire work because of its seeming irreverence. My spiritual path has been, in many ways, odd and, in other ways, typical of former fundamentalists. Through a strange string of events, that of God partnering with me on my journey in mysterious ways, I came to meet a theology that embraces the saying: “Never place a period where God has placed a coma; God is still speaking.” I have taken this to heart and have kept my ears, mind, arms, and heart open. In doing so, God’s “still speaking” voice has moved me along. I therefore wonder if the title of this essay is God’s slogan for me.
God’s desire to partner with us is evident even within the creation story. A surface reading reveals an intensely relational dynamic—I would say, partnership—between God and humans. God makes things available and facilitates possibilities; humans are given responsibility to co-care and co-create with God. God and humans spend time together in conversation. The emergent potential of Earth itself exists from the beginning, and creation’s unfolding will be an adventure that God and humans experience together.
But by the time the written versions of creation and other biblical stories came into being, the stronghold of male-supremacy, toxic-masculinity, often lumped together as “patriarchy” was—and is—the norm. Therefore, anything that overtly recognizes women, girls, non-binary males, in a positive light is scarce and often veiled, requiring a more careful, thoughtful, and reflective, reading.
Many biblical writers refer to God as male, though some refer to God as female. Sometime later, early European art cast the Christian God as male in the mold of the gods of ancient Greece and Rome. And that artistic casting, along with the male language for God in the Bible, has stuck in our imaginations and, for many, evolved into “God is male” as an empirical fact.
But because God is in partnership with us, we have been given glimpses of God’s respect and reverence for women from the very beginning of the Christian story—adopted from the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as the Gospel writings and other New Testament books.
In Genesis, the creation story is both poetic and observational. There are days and nights, a sequence of creation that builds upon itself with each step more complex than the previous. Shrimp are less complex than birds, birds less complex than donkeys, donkeys less complex than Adam, and—let me assert, daringly—Adam is less complex than Eve! It is Eve who is the pinnacle of “creation week.” But because of all that gets lumped under the banner of patriarchy, Eve is often regarded a villain—not least because of the subsequent story in Genesis 3. This is one of those moments when God says, “Pay attention! That’s not what I said.”
Looking a little deeper into the creation story, it is apparent that God understands that the male ego is fragile and suggests to Adam, the less-complex of the humans created, that it is not good for Adam to be alone. And to further comfort the male ego, God tells Adam that Adam is a participant by the contribution of a rib (Gen 2:21-22). The rib is explained as a symbol of equality between Adam and Eve. In looking back on the story, we see that the writers of this passage already understood what microscopes would eventually prove true, namely, that men contribute extraordinarily little to the creation of a human being.
Another layer of the story makes it evident that, in the moment of “the eating of the apple,” Eve is the leader in the garden (see Genesis 3). The cunning serpent approaches her with the offer of knowledge because, of the two, it is Eve who has an embodied-recognition (a recognition beyond words) that there is a void of meaning in the life she and Adam had been living. And Eve’s willingness to pursue knowledge indicates a strong sense of curiosity and courage, having a drive for deeper understanding and an adventurous spirit—things that are “made in the image of God.” Whereas Adam, who was “with her” (Gen 3:6), seems to simply go along with the leader, Eve. It is important to note that my understanding of this wonderful story is tilted towards Matthew Fox’s “Original Blessing orientation, rather than an act of disobedience.
In the New Testament, Jesus is quite overt in his regard for women. He rarely draws lines of distinction; the one glaring example when he draws a line of distinction is with the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24–30). I am deeply sad that she is unnamed, so I will call her “Sheila.” Sheila calls Jesus out. I imagine Jesus initially hears the many voices of his community and broader society demanding the line stay in place—or, more accurately, that Sheila be kept in her place. Then the voice of God overpowers the murmurs and says, “Pay attention! That’s not what I said.” And we see Jesus change his mind and remove the line of distinction between him and Sheila (Mark 7:29).
Jesus also listens, albeit reluctantly, to his mother at the wedding feast in Cana and turns water into wine (John 2:1-11). Jesus talked to the Samaritan woman at the well in ways that are reserved for family relationships (John 4:1-42). Jesus protects and helps set free a woman accused of a crime that the laws and practices of the day called for death by stoning (John 8:2-11). The discovery at Nag Hammadi sheds further light on Jesus’ regard for women as leaders in the movement and notes their impact, as does the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.
Despite all the evidence to support women’s place as primary in religious life, at every level, we, in the Christian tradition, continue to debate the role of women in religious, work, and home life. We have not been good partners with God because we have failed to listen to God saying, “Pay attention! That’s not what I said.”
One of the most difficult aspects of partnership is clarity in communication. The person or people issuing the communication holds biases, makes incorrect assumptions about the intended audience, fail to account for lexical variations, and other flaws. The person or people receiving the communication are often looking for confirmation of an existing perspective. As John Steinbeck said, “No one wants advice—only corroboration.” The ones receiving communication have an agility when it comes to molding what is said, no matter how contradictory to presumptions, into a confirmation. Communication takes a willingness to get messy, persistence, openness, and the discipline to get confirmation that what was intended and what is understood are the same.
Jesus and the disciples are a wonderful example of the difficulty in communication. The disciples are often confused and neither Jesus, nor the disciples—at least in the recorded versions available to us—engage in the discipline of confirming a mutual understanding. Instead, the disciples are often left wondering what Jesus meant. I concede this is a teaching strategy many wisdom-teachers and holy-guides engage; Jesus wasn’t unique in this way.
As partners with God and with each other, I suggest we add the religious/spiritual paradigm offered by Matthew Fox in Original Blessing to our foundation and allow it to become an integral part of our way of communicating—our listening and speaking.
There are four components found in Original Blessing:
- Via Positiva, which recognizes that “our first spiritual moments are moments of awe and wonder, and delight.” This openness leads us into gratitude, reverence, and joy.
- Via Negativa, where we “befriend darkness” and grief; we learn “letting go and letting be.”
- Via Creativa, or to be in process, “befriending creativity” and our divinity. An openness to possibility.
- Via Transformativa, as a friend puts it, “So this is where the woo-woo stuff becomes the-rubber-meets-the-road.” We change—don’t fight it. “Befriending new creation.” “Compassion, celebration, and erotic justice” take center stage.
A central theme in Fox’s work is beauty. His notion of beauty is well-aligned with process-thought and theology and, ultimately, we can consider real, good, and true partnership a thing of beauty that informs all future possibilities.
As partners with God and with each other we must heed God’s cry of, “Pay attention! That’s not what I said,” and pay close attention to what God is saying. As I mentioned at the beginning, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma; God is still speaking.” All along, God has been speaking to us about the fact that women belong as valued members in every space and in every setting. We need to hold up our end of the partnership. Beauty awaits.
Question: How can you be a better partner with God in supporting women to be in their many, rightful places?
Rajeev Rambob is co-Pastor at Parkside Community Church in Sacramento, California, parksideucc.org. Rajeev graduated from Berkeley School of Theology with a Masters in Community Leadership, and is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. His primary role is as spouse and father to the most influential people in his life. Rajeev is co-host of Irenicast.com a Progressive Christian podcast and Haystackspodcast.com a podcast for fringe and former Seventh-day Adventists.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.