Becoming a Man in a Woman’s World

On my fist visit to the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, I was consciously assessing the state of a community that I expected to be seized by fear. The priestly child-abuse scandal that had been papered over in the ‘70s had re-ignited. Attorneys revealed that many of the perpetrators had been hidden in the church hierarchy, and some had been allowed to resume children’s ministry. Cardinal Mahoney himself was accused of complicity, and huge financial claims were leveled against the Church.

What I discovered, as I wandered around the periphery of the celebration, was that it was infected by a subtle competition for dominance. Every member of the worship team wanted to lift the pall, to re-establish the connection to Christ, and no longer trusted the authority of the prelate. So I listened carefully, echoing back what I heard, and tried to celebrate harmony when it appeared. The cantor went and sat with the choir, and when he came back down to the podium, the competition surrendered to glorious praise.

As I wandered in the space, I got a few disturbed glances from the ushers and deacons. But the confrontation came from a middle-aged woman who, as I stood in the back enjoying the music, approached me and hissed “Say the words!”

I experienced this again when I went down to Orange County to the enormous campus of a renowned evangelist. This time I sat in the fourth row from the stage, and as I probed the spirit of the congregation, he stared pointedly at me. I stayed for a second service, this time sitting in the back rows, and he announced that he had been talking to Jesus every day of his adult life. A little non-plussed, I poked around and discovered that it was his wife and her girlfriends that were presenting the counterfeit.

I won’t assert that these incidents are typical of the “male-dominated” religions, but neither are they rare. They illustrate the temptations of maternal power. If a man and his wife become “one flesh” through intercourse, how much deeper are the bonds that link a mother and the child growing in her womb? The sin that exists in abortion is that the two spirits, rather than separating through birth, remain bound up together. Inevitably a struggle for dominance develops. Even if a normal delivery occurs, male children remain buried in a feminine psychology. This is untenable. While a woman can tell a man whether he satisfies her physical and psychological needs, she cannot connect him to the sources of spiritual strength that make it possible for those needs to be met.

Particularly in affluent communities, where housewives often find their worth measured by the strength of their children, boys face enormous challenges in becoming men. Mothers have difficulty letting their children go. I saw this manifested when I volunteered as a teacher’s aide in elementary school. I was the only father to so participate in kindergarten. I was involved in a divisive custody struggle at the time, and faced a prejudice that I was simply there for legal reasons. That was not true – I really wanted my sons to have a concrete sense of how important their education was to me. But the teachers and mothers struggled with my presence.

In my younger son’s class, lessons were tutored at tables marked by pictures. I was never assigned to the teacher’s table until I took my sons to a swim party. One of the activities was water volleyball with a huge bouncy ball. The event facilitators stood at the back of the court and, though trying to be as gentle as possible, served the ball with force that simply overpowered the kids. I finally got my hands on the thing and walked it up to the net, asking “Who wants to serve it?” Holding the ball over the child’s head, they knocked it up into the air, and the children on the other side clustered under the ball. No longer having to absorb its momentum, they knocked it back over the net. Laughter and shouting replaced the bored frustration.

When I next went in to class, the children embraced me with their hearts while the teacher read a story. The birthday girl turned around and smiled at me, and the little community of children finally overwhelmed the resistance to my presence that had been established by the mothers and teachers. I was allowed that day to tutor at the “red heart table.” But consider: only because one of the daughters let me in.

So when feminists decry the disempowering psychology of “male-dominated” religions, I get a little frustrated. Given their powerful psychological influence on little boys, maternal projections of anger towards men are a destructive burden. I would prefer that women celebrate the strength that they gain from participating in Earth- or Goddess-centered religions, thus advertising what men are missing. And I would also prefer that they celebrate the teachings of the avatars, none of whom rejected the participation of women. Even in the Hebrew tradition, a woman’s spiritual power is recognized: inheritance of the tradition is through the mother.

But the only way to make sense of the story of Abraham’s lineage is to realize that Joseph, the child left without a protector in his father’s harem, became a glorious man because his father took him under his wing. Boys need fathers, and women need to be cautious against using their children as leverage in their relationships. It leaves them with weak sons that attain independence only through rebellion, and the problems of managing the predatory women that they attract. When that consequence is recognized, it seems unfair to castigate men because husbands, spun up by sex and greed, go out into the world to plunder and pillage for the satisfaction of their wives.