Motherhood, Wisdom, and Security
Motherhood, Wisdom, and Security
Rev. Christian Iosso – May 9, 2021
Texts: Proverbs 3:13-31, 33-35. 9: 1-6.
One of the most important parts of getting an organ transplant is having a safe and secure place where one can recover. Depending on the organ involved and the age of the recipient, recuperation can take up to a year, and monitoring can continue for five. For children and young people, a key part of the context for recuperation is very often a mother capable of caring for the daughter or son. The lack of a caring parent (it can be a father or step-parent) and a steady household thus can be a death sentence for a young person who will not move up the transplant list. For older kids who understand what is going on, it is heart-breaking that the absence of good enough parents that may have stunted their growth condemns them to early death. But medical personnel cannot justify a very costly operation and the use of a scarce organ for someone without the support for recovery once they leave the hospital.
Mother’s Day is sometimes resented because it lifts up motherhood over all other aspects of being a woman. The book of Proverbs also lifts up motherhood, but as our texts show, the images of Wisdom Woman are more than reproduction and nurturing young. The first nine chapters and the last chapter, number 31, highlight wisdom as a divine attribute that is present in mature people who can manage households and have counseling skills. That last chapter contains a long poem describing the ideal wife which does not emphasize nurturing or comforting children. The ideal wife is a hard worker, a merchant, and a teacher and her virtues are dignity, prudence, and charity in and beyond the home.
Johanna Van Wijk-Bos, a professor of Old Testament at Louisville Seminary, summarizes many of these themes in her book, Reimagining God (subtitled, The Case for Scriptural Diversity; Westminster/JohnKnox Press, 1995). She reminds us that the words for wisdom in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin are all feminine: Hokmah, Sophia, Sapientia, and the place of wisdom in the beginning with God is like the Logos in the first chapter of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word…” Woman wisdom, or Lady Wisdom in the older literature, personifies several aspects of God.
Wisdom is a way of being before it a set of actions. In the book of Proverbs, the character WomanWisdom in those first 9 chapters provides a model and framework for the 20 chapters of individual proverbs full of advice and to-do’s that can otherwise appear rigid and dogmatic. Even the ending poem about the ideal wife needs to be read with wisdom because there is a counterpoint of the unwise woman, the seductress, the gossip, the envious and even evil woman. There are ways of reading these texts that ignored their richness and were used to suppress women: she “does not eat the bread of idleness,” (keep busy) and also, “charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain…” (no make-up or nice clothes for you).
The imbalance of Hebrew society and most other societies toward patriarchy is real. You can see this in our society, in the fear or ideological hatred of the “mommy state.” The fact that the US birthrate has declined for 6 years now clearly confirms a hostility to actual mommies and mothering, very present in the arguments against paid parental leave and against adequate childcare for working families. In families like mine in the 1950’s and 1960’s, a mom could stay home to raise 5 kids on her spouse’s schoolteacher’s salary.
When the Presbyterian General Assembly studied the rise in divorce in the past 4 decades, it had virtually nothing to with diversity of orientation and sexuality. Yes, there were changing gender roles and expectations, but relationships were being hammered by the rising inequality that first sent the second parent into the workforce and then further drove families to pile on credit card debt in the attempt to maintain middle class lifestyles. Frankly, the decline in stewardship in churches and giving to other organizations reflects some of this lack of disposable income and capacity for saving.
I believe there are generalizable gender differences, but less than traditional stereotypes suggest. (Some of you may well disagree.) I think most men and women of all orientations have the same archetypal stuff, but it comes on line in different sequence. To put it in the semi-mythical (and Jungian) catchphrases, there are 4 stages of emphasis in the maturing process: in their teenage years males move from (1) knowledge seeking—the “magician,” seeking understanding and mastery, to (2) the “warrior”—ideally defending borders, such as the line of scrimmage, assertive/aggressive energy, to (3) the “lover”—the affiliative energy, to (4) a mature ordering function that is less about competition and more about blessing other beings, including grandchildren. That stage 4, the “king” or “queen” within, is not usually hit until well after 50 years of age.
For females, and I am following Ann Ulanov as well as Robert Moore, there is the same desire for knowledge and understanding, the “magician” at the first stage. Then, however, instead of the “warrior” energy coming on line in the later teens and twenties, the “lover” energy predominates, propelling not only partnering but parenting. For women in midlife, though, the “warrior” energy kicks in, not only to protect the family but in starting businesses and becoming more assertive. The fourth stage in this model is the same as for men: that ordering, blessing, productive maturity.
Just to speculate, some of the high profile divorces we are seeing, between Bill and Melinda Gates or the Bezos couple, may be that midlife disjunction where the women are less inclined to accept the supporting or subordinate roles and the men are surprised at their drive to make a mark of their own. The women are experiencing inner warrior while the men are getting less war-like or driven to compete. (Sometimes older men look for more compliant younger women, less likely to challenge their ways). Let us remember that the book of Proverbs affirms the full achievements of women outside the home and effectively celebrates women’s powers. To grow up may be to do some role reversals for greater mutuality and equality.
Now let me make a brief case for a more mothering society in the sense of the book of Proverbs, where the wise woman is “a tree of life,” “her paths are peace,” we are to “live trustingly” with our neighbors, and “not withhold the good that we have within our capacity.”
“Keep sound wisdom and prudence, and they will be life for your soul and (yes) adornment for your neck. Then you will walk on your way securely… and not live in fear” or think that you need to do evil or harm others. In a word, a wiser and more mothering society is a more secure one.
It is one not stunted by insecurity focused on a parody of patriarchy and the absurd idolatry of “gundamenalism”—literally killing 35,000 or so citizens a year (The phrase is from Rev. Jim Atwood’s 2017 book). This is the immature warrior who needs to own a gun to be a man. Even our police officers, who are to channel their warrior energy “to protect and serve,” are filled with fear and regularly over-react, not color-blind but often blinded by color.
The sentimental version of Mothers’ Day is, in fact, a kind of “thoughts and prayers” holiday, because it is in constant feedback loop with collective insecurity and the lack of empathy we saw in damaged boy leaders abandoning half a million Americans to Covid. Sure our society wants women to be unquestioning, unselfish, always forgiving, because men as a group are still too violent and punitive and the society is grievously out of whack.
And grief itself is part of what lies behind the idealized desire for maternal comfort and the unspoken desire for someone else to make the sacrifices. Sentimentality is not a lack of emotion but an imbalance, accepting some emotions but leaving others out—the forcefulness and anger of the woman warrior-protector, for example. In a grossly unequal system, in fact, it is boy-men of aggressive insecurity who make it to the top but have no idea what the public good could be—a Jeff Bezos of Amazon determined to have a most profitable company pay the least amount of taxes and brutalize its workers. To put it in real Old Testament terms, that is vicious money-worshipping and child-sacrificing paganism. But so far our market-dominated society stays locked in the warrior mode; the governing “king” and “queen” energy is kept weak.
Two final points.
One has to do with security. The Irish-American essayist Fintan O’Toole has written recently (“To Hell with Unity,” New York Review of Books, March 25, 2021) that “Postwar American conservativism… understood security as having five dimensions: “national security,” “law and order,” religious and cultural continuity, economic stability for most workers, and regulation for safer products and a less endangered environment” (p. 10). He argues that since the 1980’s, conservativism has dumped the economic security and environmental protection, has confused “law and order” with systemic racism, has got us into constant unnecessary wars, and has embraced anti-science authoritarian religion. His pitch to the new President is to reclaim genuine security as a unifying narrative for the cascading crises of the pandemic, the racial injustice, the economic inequality, etc. We might say that the Green Wisdom of our faith would approve.
Just as a young person needing a transplant needs a stable home life, so a stunted or immature society needing a values transplant needs stable religious and cultural roots. (I mean roots like Simone Weil did in her book, The Need for Roots.) That’s our job. (That’s what the symbolic balance of the Spire and this sanctuary are about.) Like a good mother and a good father, we cannot abandon our post, even at a time of hardship. We have to break that feedback loop between insecurity and fear that undermines the grown-up mommy and daddy society we stand for. It is still our job to be a conscience in the culture and in our Reformed tradition, just government is to serve God by serving the common good.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, and Sophia. Amen.