God, who doesn’t return your phone calls
It’s weird how PZ’s prank with the communion wafer is really creating a moment of reckoning out there, but I’m going to chalk that up to the summer news cycle. There was part of this heartfelt and moving post by Stephen at Cogitamus that made me realize that there’s more to be said on my metaphor of the relationship between church/religion/”god” and the believers as that between a man drunk on male privilege and a woman who puts up with it. It was this:
The only way to portray him so is to take seriously the claims American Christian Fundamentalists make about the Bible: that it was written merely as an account of the history of the world from the first day. I simply see no reason why I should trust their interpretation, when the better one is that the Bible is, from Genesis to Revelation, a theological treatise about the nature of God and humanity. Every story, whether we can connect it to a historical event or not, should be read in this light. And when read with this insight into the priorities of ancient Hebrews and Christians, we read of a far different God than the one which delights in slaughter of innocent men and women, the one which is always looking for a reason to get pissed off and punish us.
I don’t see why the fundie interpretation is less valid than the more moral-by-modern standards liberal one, not that I’m not grateful for liberal Christians. That said, I’m well aware that the Christian tradition is that Jesus was a new era, one focused on kindness and gentleness. So, really, focusing on Yahweh The Smiting Machine—who was probably done in as much by the fact that you could record events as they happened, making the weird stories less plausible as anything else—is unfair. And I’m not questioning whether or not it’s good to have a religion that at minimum pays lip service to the idea of peace, and has actual branches that really do practice it. It’s a giant step in the right direction, by my measures.
That said, the kinder, gentler Christian god is still well-likened to a man drunk on male privilege. He’s not the guy who hits you anymore, no. Now he’s the guy that doesn’t call you and toys with your emotions.
Many more of us stalwart strong women have been through this game than we’d like to admit, but by admitting that I’ve been the victim of someone else’s ego trip, I will say that it pushed me towards a more feminist mindset and really woke me up to how sexism is alive and well today. With that caveat out of the way, let me describe the power trip. You’re dating a guy who is full of assurances that he thinks you’re the bees knees, the best thing that ever happened, and sexy as hell to boot. But. He doesn’t call when he says he will. He “forgets” dates, or runs late, sometimes so obnoxiously late that you were hopping the shower to forlornly wash off your perfume and make-up when he finally knocks on the door. He comes up with hollow excuses not to have sleepovers all the time. He’s disdainful of your interests. When you’re feeling completely unloved and unwanted, and you confront him on it, he tells you that you have to believe that he really does love you and want you. And this, I think, is similar to the way believers are asked to have faith in a god who doesn’t deign to show himself or return phone calls.
So why do you stay with the guy who doesn’t call when he said he would? In part, because when it’s good, it’s really good, and you cling to those few and far between moments when he returned your affections eagerly, when you laid around eating ice cream and giggling and it was easy and not riddled with doubt and recriminations. But mostly you do it because you’re afraid. You’re afraid to quit believing. You’re afraid that if you say, out loud, “He doesn’t really love me. He plays with my affections because he gets off on the power he has over me,” then you’ll turn into That Woman. The cat lady. The perpetually single. The unloved, never invited to parties. Similar, really, to the bitter atheist who doesn’t enjoy life or have a moral center.
If you’re lucky, you discover feminism and a context for the direct oppression you’re receiving at the hands of Sir Asshole, and you can dump him in a fit of self-righteous feminist anger and move straight into living your life how you see fit, instead of playing patsy to some dude for the honor of saying you have a boyfriend. More likely, the sheer amounts of evidence against your faith in his love for you pile up and you just let go of believing. And then, Disco Ball willing, you realize that being the single cat lady wasn’t as bad as everyone said it was, and that roses still smell sweet and sex still feels good. And that abandoning the passive dependence on men doesn’t mean the end of love in your life.
When you’re being told to believe in love with poor to no evidence that it exists, there are two ways you can be strung along. There’s the more intellectual coping strategy—you decide that love is a value unto itself, whether or not it’s returned. Think Anna in “The Third Man”, who has a sort of pure love for Harry Lime that’s unsullied by his misuse of her, because she’s above such things. Or, in the more common scenario, you’re occasionally fed reasons for hope by the man who’s using you, just enough to keep you hanging in. He calls on time. He shows up on time with flowers. He stays overnight once in awhile and showers you with kisses. The Catholic Church, with its regular updating of miracles, is well aware of this technique to keep people’s hope alive.