Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet Versus the Goddess

Separating human qualities between feminine and masculine sounds so old hat in 2011 so when I came across Leonard Shlain’s book, The Alphabet and the Goddess, my first impulse was to pass it over.

We’re a long ways from the 1970s feminist fight for recognition of feminine virtues. In 2011, despite the remaining discrepancy between men and women power figures in politics and industry, feminine values seem pretty much enshrined in much of our established value-making systems. In divorce decrees, decisions regarding pregnancy and abortion, even the investigation of rape charges, the pendulum seems to me to have swung to the other end. The mere accusation by a hotel female domestic was enough to detain an international figure and strip him of any future power position.

I am reminded of some years ago when well-meaning therapists solicited dubious rape stories from children to destroy the reputation of many adults before they could be tried in our courts. While Republicans continue their recent trend of espousing the wealthy and the power of military might to solve problems, society seems to be moving to grant civil liberties to gay men, scapegoats of defective virility and power.

Shlain proposes a neural link between humans’ switch to literacy, to the use of written symbols to record and express ideas, and their switch from the valuing of feminine values to the rise of patriarchy. I don’t buy the linkage but did enjoy the journey he undertook to attempt to substantiate it.

His chapter on the Reformation in Christian Europe fascinated me, resulting as it did in the birth of Protestantism under the leadership of Luther and Calvin. I should make my own study of the teachings of these men and of the other theologians of the reformation because Shlain’s account was pregnant with implications for the present. He makes a case for many of the qualities we still see in traditional American men and women that, if Shlain is to be believed, hark back to the Reformation. Luther protested against the Catholic church’s sale of indulgences and other practices that he believed had diverged from teachings enshrined in the tradition’s scriptures and recommended stricter moral constraints that may have powered colonialism and the massive engine of Western industrial success—until now.

Shlain attributed to Calvin what we know today as the Protestant Ethic: “a personal and social order based on simplicity, modesty, hard work, self-reliance, moral rectitude, and an abiding faith in the majesty of the Lord—and in the incorruptibility of words written in books fourteen hundred years earlier….” How well I knew these qualities when I used to work at a clinic in small-town Indiana! Among the young in the city where they come in contact with a broader spectrum of culture and ideas, these qualities are watered down but in small towns and in widely separated farms in the countryside we still meet many people whose values are pretty much as Shlain described Calvin’s.

I am not saying that these values are wrong or that we should jettison them for “newer” values. From a study of the history of ideas, including values and virtues, there seems to be pendulum swings rather than truly new ideas rising where they were not there before. In other words, we simply rotate from one end of the spectrum to the other. The very idea of patriarchy supplanting matriarchy and now the ascendance again of feminine values suggest the Hindu cosmologists may be right: history is not so much linear as cyclical.

Then again this essay is not about the history of world ideas but of Western ideas even now that much of the world are adopting them in a new wave of imperialistic dominance. Not for long though as Asia is waking up, powered by the adoption of capitalistic values that she is remaking in her own image!

I was most affected by Shlain’s book because of my own journey from being a fervid Christian believer to being the secularist humanist I seem to be today. My struggle with Christian beliefs ended, I thought, when I acknowledged I could no longer justify belief in a personal god, much less the personal god Christians loved to quote to justify their own beliefs and theories about how the world operated. Shlain’s book brought all that sturm und strang back. The wound’s not scabbed over completely. The underlying flesh remains a wound.

His discussion of the changes brought about by the Protestant Reformation made Catholicism by contrast almost preferable. Whereas Protestants built severely simple churches and rituals (I doubt they would even consider what they do in their churches as rituals, as a friend recently pointed out to me), Catholic Europe had built these soaring, inspiring structures and her art even today speaks volumes to heart and soul, even when someone like me no longer believes in soul enlivening body. By comparison, Catholicism with its Inquisition and clergy child abuse seems not altogether undesirable. With all its faults Catholic practice feels warm by comparison, its now largely suppressed valuation of Mary as god’s mother balancing men’s repressive leadership with mercy and compassion.

In both traditions in the West, belief in a Supreme Entity that originated and continues to be the source of all creation and events, mercy is the most that both men and women can expect.  For me such a deity, so distant and unreachable, keeps humans victims rather than agents for change in their own right. For me, while the supernatural remains potent as the mystery at the edges of rationality, I take the black and white as the objects with which we sculpt our lives and don’t hold my breath for something else to arise to give me the power to change and bring about a better world.

About orlando gustilo

Digital content producer, photographer, writer.
This entry was posted in Christianity, culture, Hinduism, memoirs, philosophy, religion, Writers and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet Versus the Goddess

  1. Vincent says:

    I am a Catholic and revere God who is everywhere and close to my heart. He is not distant and remote to me. Our churches and rituals are richly designed because they are for God who deserves all that. The Catholic Church is a guide for me to be closer to God. The Eucharist is the living Christ. When I take the Holy Communion, I receive Christ into myself and whatever good I do is because Christ is doing that good to somebody else through me. This is the concept of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Catholic idea of the Mystical Body of Christ.

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