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Essay: Desert Religions

Essayist Richard Rodriguez reflects on the current state of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

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    The Catholic priest is under arrest, accused of raping altar boys. The Muslim shouts out the name of Allah as the jetliner plows into the skyscraper. The Jewish settler's biblical claim to build on the West Bank is supported by fundamentalist Protestants who dream of the last days.

    These have been months of shame and violence among the three great desert religions– Judaism, Christianity, and Islam– the religions to which most Americans adhere. These desert religions are sister religions in fact, but more commonly they have been brother religions, united and divided by a masculine sense of faith. Mullahs, priests, rabbis– the business of religion was traditionally the males. It was the male's task to understand how God exists in our lives.

    Judaism gave Christianity and Islam a notion both astonishing and radical, the notion that God acts in history. The desert religions became, in response to this idea, activist religions, ennobled at times by a sense of holy purpose, but also filled with a violence fed by the assumption that God is on my side and not yours. The history of the desert religions oft repeated by old men to boys, got told through stories of battles and crusades, sultans and emperors.

    But within the three great desert faiths there was a feminine impulse, less strong but ever present, the tradition of absorption rather than assertion, assertive rather than authority, of play rather than dogmatic servitude. Think of the delicate poetry of the song of songs or the delicacy of the celebration of the maternal represented by the Renaissance Madonna or the architectural lines of the medieval mosques of Spain, light as music. And yet the louder, more persistent tradition has been male concerned with power and blood and dogmatic points.

    Now on the evening news, diplomats come and go speaking of truces and terrorists to the price of oil. In truth, we are watching a religious war, Muslim versus Jew — a war disguised by the language of diplomacy. In decades and centuries past there have been Holocausts and crusades and violence as fierce among the leaders of a single religion, for example, Catholics contending with Protestant and Eastern Orthodox over heresies and questions of authority. Yahweh, God, Allah, the desert Deity rarely expressed a feminine aspect as in Hinduism.

    The men who interpreted the bible for Koran rarely allowed themselves a sense of unknowing or paradox as in Buddhism. And not coincidentally I know many Americans who are turning away from the desert religions or are seeking to moderate the mass unity of the desert religions by turning to the contemplative physics of yoga and the play of the Zen koan.

    Meanwhile, in my own Catholic Church, there is the squalor of sexual scandal– men forcing themselves on boys. One hears conservative Catholics who speak of ridding the seminaries and the rectors of homosexuals. As one gay Catholic, a single man in this vast world, I tell you pedophilia is no more an expression of homosexuality than rape is an expression of heterosexuality. Pedophilia and rape are assertions of power. Polls indicate that a majority of American Catholics are more forgiving of the fallen priests than they are forgiving of the bishops and cardinals who have treated us like children, with their secret meetings and their clutch on power, apologizing but assuming no penance.

    Polls indicate also that Catholics continue to go to church. We go to church because of the sacramental consolation our religion gives. All of us now in our churches and synagogues and mosques, what knowledge unites us now in this terrible season? Are we watching the male face of the desert religion merely reassert itself? Or are we watching the collapse of the tradition and the birth of– what?

    I think of the women of America who have become priests and rabbis. I think of the women of Afghanistan who came to the school door the first morning after the Taliban had disappeared. I think of Mother Teresa whose name will be remembered long after we have forgotten the names of the cardinals in their silk robes. I think that we may be at the beginning of a feminine moment in the history of the desert religions, even while the tanks rumble and the priest is arrested and the girl, unblinking, straps explosives onto her body.

    I'm Richard Rodriguez.