Sunday, October 3, 2010

Emily Dickinson and the Jealousy of God


Jealousy is a potentially ugly emotion. I think if jealousy is a warning, a reminder that some important boundaries are being crossed, and it leads to healthy confrontation of that situation; then, it’s in order or, at least, understandable. Unchecked or left to stew, jealousy can become or lead to something deadly, literally.

Regarding someone or someones with whom we think we have a special, a primary, relationship that we don’t want to share with anyone else--at least not nearly at the level we are connected to that someone or those someones--I think a measure of jealousy is normal and even healthy, but as soon ownership forms in the relationship in which we are investing ourselves, jealousy is in a position to become a destructive force in the relationship. We all know relationships that have ended because of jealousy that gets out of control.

This kind of jealousy is comprised of suspicion and possessiveness, mistrust and distrust; eventually it leads to spite, hatred, explosive ill will. Yet, the destructive side of jealousy is so well known and accepted that it has stood as the backbone of a sometimes successful courtroom defense known as a crime of passion.

People who become controlled by jealousy are obsessed with the notion, the suspicion, that the person or persons They love are sharing love at the same level with others. A spouse or partner has the right to expect her or his significant other not to share their level of intimacy with anyone else--unless, of course, they sign on from the beginning for an “open relationship” or an “open marriage.” If that’s what you sign up for, put the jealousy on the shelf because shared intimacy is precisely what you’ve agreed to.

In my marriage and in other serious, adult relationships I’ve been a part of, there was no way I was going to share the physical and the other deeper levels of intimacy with anyone but my beloved; nor would I have sat idly by while someone else was trying to have the same kind of role I shared with my beloved. If that works for some folks, good for them. I’d not be critical of how they choose to live. That’s none of my business. My hat’s off to Hilary for hanging onto Bill, and my hat’s off to Elizabeth Edwards for kicking John to the curb.

One of my favorite movies starring Dolly Parton is “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Dolly plays Miss Mona who runs a house of ill repute with an iron fist. She’s out in the middle of rural Texas somewhere, and her establishment is called the Chicken Ranch. As you can imagine, in a small Texas town, there are a variety of responses to the presence of the Chicken Ranch there. The religious and political conservatives publicly at least are repelled and repulsed by it, and they are constantly seeking to close it down. Others find no fault with it, and some are quite happy that it’s there. One little old lady suddenly shows up on screen in the middle of a debate on the subject, and she says that she’s grateful for the Chicken Ranch; when her husband gets to feeling frisky too often, especially on Saturday evenings (I think she said), she was thrilled that he’d give her some peace only because the Chicken Ranch was nearby. She was grateful for Miss Mona and “the girls” who kept her husband busy and happy anytime she had a “headache,” which came on at least every Saturday evening.

Jealousy may be related in part to possessiveness, as I said a moment ago, and it may also be related to insecurity on the part of the one who is jealous. Keep in mind that I think some behavior legitimately calls up jealousy; again, the thing is, it’s pointless to let yourself be stuck at the point of jealousy. Jealousy is an alert or a warning that should be acknowledged, that should lead to a discussion with the person whose behavior has created the jealousy, and then released. Love cannot long survive if being chocked off by jealousy. On the other hand, behaviors that constantly create legitimate jealousy will also kill love at its core.

In addition to jealousy related to an ostensibly intimate love relationship there are other types of jealousy. Sigmund Freud’s Oedipal Complex theory is based on his psychoanalytic perception that children from the ages of 2 and a half to 6 years or so desire the exclusive love of the parent of the opposite gender to them. He says it’s perfectly natural, and healthy children grow out of it; but before they do they have likely wished for the death of the parent of their same gender in order to do away with the “competition” as it were. If Freud were correct, I think it’s pretty scary in this high tech age where they can actually figure out how to make their wishes come true, even if it’s as easy as finding the parents’ supposedly hidden guns.

I must confess that I am given to jealousy. My marriage had its troubles, but trust wasn’t one of them. I never worried about infidelity, and I never believed that Lindon conducted herself in the presence of other men in any way that would have remotely suggested that she would have been interested in an alliance that would have broken the trust we had in each other.

As a divorced dad, however, I was doing most of the child rearing as many of you know. They boys often got very little time with their mom even though I’ve seen them beg with tears in their eyes. When they did get that time they so craved, I was known to feel jealousy on occasion. That is very small of me, and I’m not proud to admit it; but it’s true. I didn’t want anything to upset the complicated equilibrium we’d established. Besides, I was the better parent, and I wanted everyone involved--especially my ex-wife and my children--to know that beyond the shadow of any doubt.

I’ve been known to be jealous when more students sign up for a class taught by one of my colleagues than have signed up for one of my classes. I’m a really petty guy, huh? I’m jealous if one of my church members attends another church, unless she or he is visiting out of town. I’m also jealous of other activities that interfere with our Sunday morning Gatherings.

I’m jealous of mega church pastors who half prepare their sermons and preach hellfire or inconsequential fluff and still manage to gather crowds in the hundreds or the thousands. Not every week, but sometimes.

I’m jealous of religion authors who have nothing to say, but who can sell thousands of books in a heartbeat while I carry my two dollar royalty checks to the bank twice a year. I hate the publishers who say of my query or manuscript sample, “This is fantastic! Sorry we’re not publishing this kind of material at this time.”

Well, I can’t let my jealousies keep me from moving upward and onward with a healthy attitude about the opportunities that are mine, which are worth much more than the material wealth and prestige others in my business have received by preaching and teaching what Bonhoeffeur called “cheap grace.” Perhaps you are a little surprised that I feel some of these jealousies from time to time, but what we have a really hard time believing is that the great God at the center of all life also has a jealousy problem. Emily Dickinson said so, but long before the Belle of Amherst put it to poetry, God Godself owned it in the literature we now call scripture. Scripture, I said!


Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830. Her 180th birthday is on the horizon. She was very attached to her home and her hometown where she would also die on May 15, 1886. Most members of her family belonged to the Congregational Church, which had been very, very important in early American history, but she never joined that or any church.

The family was well-off financially speaking and all of them well educated. Going further by far than most women of her day, Emily had not only a solid secondary education, but also a year of study at South Hadley Female Seminary, which became Mount Holyoke College.

The house in which she was born and in which she died--though she did not live in the house during several of her younger years--was built by her grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson. She called it “the Homestead.” After her studies, Emily Dickinson moved back home, into that house, and lived there for the rest of her earthly life.

Emily never married. She took care of her parents in their older years and was a companion to her sister, Lavinia, who also chose never to get married and who, like Emily, lived with family her whole life. The degree to which she was a hermit is contested by some Dickinson scholars who point out that she simply loved and felt at home at the Homestead and saw no reason to leave except under extraordinary circumstances. Her gift for poetry is, however, not contested though in her lifetime neither she nor many others who read what she wrote took her to be a great poet. Now, some have called her the greatest American poet of all.

In William Luce’s one-woman play, “The Belle of Amherst,” performed by Julie Harris hundreds of times practically all over this country, he has Dickinson say: “Words are my life. I look at words as if they were entities, sacred beings. There are words to which I lift my hat when I see them sitting on a page” (Act 1).

By her written record, Emily Dickinson wrote some 1800 poems. As they piled up, she began to preserve several in handwritten journals. Failing eyesight slowed her down beginning in 1864, but she continued writing until her final illness stopped her.

Emily Dickinson never published a volume of poetry.

The few individual poems of hers published during her lifetime were published anonymously. There is no scholarly or historical consensus as to why she preferred that her poems not be published.

I believe that one of the signs of a great writer, poet or other, is that what drives them to write is not the hope of fame or fortune, but rather the joy of the writing itself. Same thing for many people in the creative arts. A potter in New Orleans once told me that he took no joy whatsoever in making an interesting vegetable drainer he’d designed, but they sold exceptionally well compelling him to make them by the stacks to keep the money flowing and so that he could “afford” to work on other more complex and perhaps less popular items. Emily Dickinson didn’t need the money, and if there were any truth at all to the tendencies she may have had to enjoy her relative isolation, she may not have desired fame in the least.

Dorothy Oberhaus described Dickinson’s writing as in the “poetic tradition of Christian devotion.” I’m not exactly sure all that Oberhaus may have meant by that except that some pious types have penned their praise of God in poetic format; not all did, however. Many of the religious poems so produced have become words to the hymns we sing.

Richard Wilbur saw nothing conventional in Dickinson’s religion-based poetry. He said that what resulted and what we today read as religiously-themed was “a precarious convergence between her inner experience and her religious inheritance.” The fact that she never joined any church and, from what we can tell, didn’t attend services with any regularity, means that we have no idea what her religious inheritance was though we’d be on solid ground, I’d think, if we assumed that a good bit of it came from her faithfully Congregational family members.

Some readers of Dickinson see no appreciation for religion at all in Dickinson’s poems. Some of those who make understanding her work their life’s work say that regardless of how nice a comment may sound on the surface Dickinson, at times, radically challenges what she knows of Christianity and, for that matter, all religious dogma.

Professor Jay Ladin says this about Dickinson and her view of God, which he says is fundamentally an ongoing quarrel with God:

Dickinson’s quarrel with God reflects the full panoply of human disaffection. But though Dickinson’s God rarely seems to make her happy, she never breaks off the affair, never rejects the idea that, however incompatible we may be, human and Divine are made for each other....[W]hat is at stake in Dickinson’s religious poems is not God’s existence, but God’s accessibility, responsiveness, accountability, comprehensibility, and concern for the human condition.

Similarly, Dickinson scholar, Kathleen Norris, says of Dickinson,

Finding herself unable to contain her religious feeling within the bounds of orthodoxy, she spent a good part of her life battling God directly....It was her confrontation with religion that helped shape her life and poetry...,[A]nd like Walt Whitman she developed what can rightly be called a “heterodox faith” that had little to do with churches or doctrines and a great deal to do with inner experience as well as nature itself. Dickinson seeks contact with God outside rather than within the church, by her own means and as an individual soul rather than as one of the swooning flock of converts. In doing so, the poet's work becomes dramatically subversive, undermining traditional authorities and traditional definitions of meaningful spirituality.

With these scholarly perspectives in mind, let’s hear the little poem again in the hopes of having reached a place of better understanding, especially the last comment I read from Kathleen Norris: “...the poet’s work becomes dramatically subversive, undermining traditional authorities and traditional definitions of meaningful spirituality.”

God is indeed a jealous God —

He cannot bear to see

That we had rather not with Him

But with each other play.

The Bible declares that God is a jealous God, and we are going to look at that in a few minutes; but right off the bat we can see that Dickinson can’t be spouting off orthodoxy in a poetic manner. She takes God’s jealousy to be as childish as one child becoming jealous because two others are playing with each other but not with her or him. We humans can be petty--not always of course; we can be amazingly generous, understanding, and magnanimous, but some of us sometimes can be ridiculously, pettily jealous of others who seem to be getting the attention we want. Many of us want to think more highly of God, and we should. God is not a human or a humanoid. God’s feelings, if God has feelings, are not like our feelings.

My older son, Jarrett, who majored in poetry in a high school for arts students and who started as a poetry major at Sarah Lawrence College gave his brief interpretation of the Dickinson poem:

I think she reduces God to childlike behavior, something immature: being jealous for not being able to play with others. Perhaps he's jealous of us for being human; perhaps he wants to participate in his own creation?

Jarrett’s partner, Joseph Faura, jumped into the family project as well:

I think she means that the Judeo-Christian god who is exclusively alone and supersedes any other god is a jealous one because "he" does not accept any other deity as worship-worthy and punishes the followers that even think of doing so.

I think we’ve gone to the heart of Dickinson’s work.


Is God a jealous God? I’d have to say know. God is not human and feels nothing the way we feel it. Perhaps God doesn’t even “feel” at all. But if so, God isn’t petty, and God doesn’t crack the whip when human beings fail to do things God’s way. As I said earlier, though, the Bible tells you just the opposite of what I’m telling you.

The second of the ten commandments lays it all out:

You shall not make for yourselves an idol, nor any image of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: you shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them, for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the parents on the children, on the third and on the fourth generation of those who hate me, and showing loving kindness to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

So God is jealous, according to this commandment, when those who have been obedient to God forget about that and choose, instead, to create idols so that they can worship gods and goddesses other than the one God of the Hebrews, Yahweh, to whom they were rightly, originally connected.

In reality, those who were putting words in God’s mouth were the ones who were jealous, jealous that their fellow Hebrews were worshipping other gods, whom they would all eventually take to be false gods, but they weren’t jealous just for the heck of it; they were jealous because they were afraid. They were afraid that if enough of the Hebrews turned their backs on God, God would punish the whole nation. Therefore, they took the liberty to say, in essence, “If God spoke audibly, this is what God would say: stay away from those other gods and the religions that have built up around them.” Preachers have been putting words in God’s mouth ever since.

Little reclusive Emily Dickinson thankfully challenged the notion that God is jealous when we interact with other humans. Ministering to/working with people in their pain is exactly what we should be doing; God is in no way jealous of that. The fact is, God can only be a jealous God when we build our God as one of us because we know we’d be jealous if someone who had expressed interest in us was out chasing around after others right on the heels of their desire to be connected to us.

These elaborate systems of punishment that would grow up culminating in an eternal burning hell, were developed by the same folks or their children who came up with the idea of a God with jealousy problems to begin with. Certainly there were those who may have believed sincerely in a jealous God, but the God they kept coming up with was mostly made up of their projections of what they’d do if they were God.

The question has to be raised then, “If all Emily Dickinson wanted to do was to express her disbelief in a God who gets jealous as the result of human inability to commit, why a poem written sarcastically stating the opposite of what she really believed?” We can’t answer that, but we might speculate about why. Maybe her family came home from another Sunday service at the Congregational Church where most of them attended, and at Sunday lunch they went over the high points of the sermon. All she could do was to express her views respectfully in front of her family members and, then, as soon as possible, get to her paper and pen and jot down a quick sarcastic response. Remember that she wasn’t publishing her views; her astounding collection of poetry was published after her death.

There is one other item to bring up in order for us to understand both the biblical view of God and Emily Dickinson’s poem, “God Is Indeed a Jealous God.” In the fifty-fifth chapter of Isaiah, there’s a verse that begins with these words: “For your Maker is your husband....” Frequently, ancient Israel is portrayed in what became scripture as the spouse of God. Even if metaphorical, the truth behind the metaphor justifies the notion that God could be jealous when we humans, collectively God’s spouse, prefer the company of one another to the company of God, and on that note there is no denying that humans mostly favor human company to divine company so Dickinson’s assessment was right in keeping with the biblical message. The sarcasm, however, challenges the biblical notion, and it should.

God as a jealous God or God as capable of jealousy is a primitive picture of a humanized God by people who had no capacity for seeing, much less believing in, a God who is above jealousy and, in fact, isn’t bogged down with human ways or feelings at all.

Emily Dickinson:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church --
I keep it, staying at Home --
With a Bobolink for a Chorister --
And an Orchard, for a Dome --

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice --
I just wear my Wings --
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton -- sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman --
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at least --
I'm going, all along.

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