Mother and Father ReunionPrint
By William Deresiewicz
July 25, 2011
Religion represents the infancy of the human race. Literally: we put God in place of our parents. That much is a commonplace, at least in certain circles. But it isn’t just a matter of the Daddy in the Sky. God substitutes, precisely, for our parents, both of them, not just our father, as the language of the Western faiths would have us think. Which tells us something important about the nature of our religious imagination.
The polytheistic religions have had it easy, with their gods and goddesses, their Zeuses and Heras and Vishnus and Lakshmis, a deity for every occasion. With the emergence of monotheism, divinity would seem to have become consolidated, at least in the West, in a single patriarchal figure–avinu malkeinu, as the Jewish liturgy puts it, Our Father, Our King. But Judaism and Christianity have both developed ways around that limitation.
Jewish thought speaks of God, with respect to his relationship with humankind, in terms of two principal attributes: midat din and midat rachamim, the attribute of justice and the attribute of mercy. God judges, but He also forgives. Yet though the matter’s never put like this, what the dichotomy really amounts to is God the Father versus God the Mother, the stern, rule-giving patriarch and the loving, sympathetic nurturer.
Christianity made the whole thing easier. God the Father was explicitly paired with God the Son. The one condemns mankind, the other redeems it. But what is Jesus, after all, especially in the popular mind, if not a mother figure: suffering, self-sacrificing, emotional (“Jesus wept”), emotionally available, passive and weak on the surface but a pillar of quiet strength underneath. As the centuries passed, Catholicism did not leave the association to chance, doubling Christ with an explicitly maternal figure (“the madonna which the cunning Italian intellect flung to the mob of Europe,” James Joyce called her). Mary, like her son, is worshiped as an intercessor with the Father, a figure of mercy who mitigates the harshness of judgment. For what is a Mommy, after all, if not the person who intercedes for us with Daddy? And what is religion, if not our psychic needs writ large?
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.