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Comparative Source Analysis, Essay Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1359

Essay

The position of women within various Eastern and Western religions has not been studied in depth due to the subaltern status of women in societies that are structured by patriarchy. Indeed, the grand narrative mutes the voices of women, especially when western religions such as Christianity were in their nascent stages. Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels contends that the various theological debates that took place between the Gnostics and the Catholic Church when Christianity was in its nascent stages were propelled by the ongoing political struggle for leadership within the religion. Orthodox Christianity, which ultimately was called Catholicism, had a large corpus of believers and supported various texts and interpretations that fortified their objectives. Gnostics did not involve themselves in the struggle for leadership in Christianity, as they were viewed as a radical group that was structured in an egalitarian manner. Because of their minority status, the Gnostics were soon blotted in the drive of the Catholics for religious hegemony in the Christian world. More specifically, Pagel’s third chapter entitled “God the Father, God the Mother” explores the role of women both in godhead and in human affairs and compares how women figure within the orthodox brand of Christianity  and within the Gnostics. As such, she expounds on the scriptural etiologies of both the Gnostic and orthodox perception of women and the feminine (Pagels 48). Western and Eastern religions are often viewed as mutually exclusive, comprised of distinct traditions, yet the ancient scriptures demonstrate profound similarities. More specifically, Gnostics from Christianity and early Buddhists view humans as constricted by their voracious appetite for epicurean pleasures within the life cycle of birth and death. In order to circumvent the vagaries and bondage of the human condition, scriptures of both the eastern and western traditions prescribe asceticism. Karen Lang’s article entitled “Images of Women in early Buddhism and Gnostic Christianity” is mainly concerned with the various attitudes shared by authors who identify themselves as ascetics towards females. These authors viewed woman as irrational in comparison to their male counterparts, thereby rendering them vulnerable to the weakness of the human flesh. Such writings demonized female corporeality, tendering women both defective and impure by nature. These two articles consider how the female and ideas about the feminine figure in the burgeoning stages of various eastern and western religious. Gender discourses emerged out of such perceptions, which underscores how dyadic thinking with regards to gender has impacted both eastern and western religions into the present day.

Pagel’s article considers the role of women within orthodox Christianity in comparison to the role they play in the Gnostics brand of religion. The orthodox view of women represents a continuation of the Jewish all-male, hyper masculine God. The majority of religions in the Near East have both male and female gods. The three religions that germinated out of the Old Testament—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—eschew discursively framing God in gendered or sexual imagery or lexicon (Pagel 48). Although Catholics believe that Mary is the mother of God, they do not, according to Pagel, perceive her to be “God the Mother.” Although within Gnostic discourses there were scattered expressions about male primacy, Gnostics nonetheless framed God in a dyadic fashion, meaning God possessed both feminine and masculine traits (Pagel 50). The Gospel of Thomas, the central Gnostic text, states that “for every woman who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” This facet of the Gnostics emulates the Jewish faith, which incorporates a feminine aspect of God, called shekhinah (Pagel 49).  In the Book of Genesis, according to the Gnostics, God promulgated that humanity was both female and male, and he made humans in his very likeness and image (Pagel 50). As such, there must be a feminine aspect in God as a figurehead. Furthermore, humanity contains a bi-gender facet. Genesis states that Adam was a fusion of both sexes, as he gave birth to Eve. Orthodox Christians, on the other hand made a concerted effort to interdict any textual intimations that God was not wholly neuter or masculine. The Gnostics rendered a masculine God as false, as a superior mother existed who superseded him. The Gnostics contend that there are times when the mother reprimanded the father God for bombasting that no other god existed before Him. Pagels contends that the main reason that orthodox Christians repudiate texts that insinuate that a feminine god exists because there exists a scriptural foundation for the Gnostics rendering women equals in church as they have a variety of roles within Gnostic ceremonies that are prophetic, priestly, and Episcopal (Pagel 52). Jesus chafed against the Jewish tradition of patriarchy by articulating a more inclusive an open attitude towards the female gender. Pagel concludes that there are various social and economic reasons for the avowal of male hegemony within Christianity. Paternalism has been reaffirmed within the Christian world, especially when non-Jewish populations became increasingly absorbed.

Lang’s article cogently ascertains how the Christian Gnostics and the Buddhists—i.e. both eastern and western religions—viewed women and femininity within their respective religious and overtly ascetic epistemologies. Ascetic authors render women as libidinous, discursively framing them in a pejorative fashion (Lang 95).  Various texts attest to how the female body is viewed within eastern and western religions as unpleasant, negative, and sinister. Lang thus strives to deconstruct these negative perceptions of women because there is ample evidence that shows women had some agency within both religions, and they actively participated in the religions while both religions were in their nascent stages (Lang 95). Male bodies, however, were viewed in a much different manner. Indeed, female bodies were viewed as tropes of “sensual mentality,” and female liberation required that they transform their bodies so that the female nature is outright abjured. Lang takes into consideration why such pejorative perceptions and attitudes towards females persist when it is public knowledge that women were active in both Gnostic Christian and Buddhist religious circles. Such misogyny germinated due to epochal exigencies. Within both Gnostic Christian and Buddhist texts, two images of women emerge: women as sagacious, compassionate, and dexterous in edifying others and leading others towards the divine; and women as seductive, libidinous, and alluring others within the life cycle. Although ascetic authors within both religious traditions symbolized the blemishes of the physical world via their observations and written descriptions of the deformities and defilement of female bodies, the intent of the authors was to repudiate the capacity of all human bodies to be “bags of dung” (Lang 103). As such, the descriptions of female corporeality must be viewed through a grain of salt, as women were capable of spiritual attainment in the same way that men were.

Both Pagel and Lang broached the subject of the role of women in eastern and western religions in distinct manners. While Pagel examines the conception of the godhead within orthodox and Gnostic circles, Lang assesses how the female body is perceived without both western and eastern religions and how misogyny manifests throughout the works of the most orthodox and ascetic adherents. Despite the fact that observers render eastern and western religions as antithetical, it is nonetheless unequivocal in various writings associated with Gnostic Christianity, Christianity, and Buddhism that women and the feminine occupied a subaltern position in comparison to males and masculinity frameworks. Analyzing both of these articles provide nuance to a dialogue on the role of women in the development of eastern and western religions that are hegemonic within the context of modernity. A question still remains regarding the agency of women within the Gnostic Christian and early Buddhist circles with regards to the development of various religious sects. Other authors have opined about female saints carving a niche within Christianity, although they have still been discursively framed as subjugated to their male counterparts. What can be gleaned from these two articles is that women, although religious discourses within eastern and western circles denigrate them, nonetheless played a role within the burgeoning stages of both eastern and western religions.

Works Cited

Lang, Karen C. “Images of Women in Early Buddhism and Christian Gnosticism.” Buddhist-Christian Studies, 2 (1982): 94-105. JStor. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Pagels, Elaine. “God the Father/God the Mother.” The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Print.

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