Basic Linguistic Options: God, Women, Equivalence

Basic Linguistic Options: God, Women, Equivalence

by Elizabeth A. Johnson

from She Who Is. The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, Crossroad, 1997, chapter 3, pp.42-57.

Copyright © 1992 by Elizabeth A. Johnson. All rights reserved. Here republished with permission of The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, and the author.

Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., is professor of theology at Fordham University and the author of many books, such as:
* Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (1992);
* Women, Earth and Creator Spirit (1993);
* She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1993);
* How to Paint Miniatures (1994);
* Pauline Theology: Looking Back, Pressing On (Editor, 1997);
* Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Coounity of Saints

I walked along the railroad tracks, smelling the rain coming in the wind. The rain came, falling heavily all along the land to my left, a sheet of rain which stopped precisely at the trestle embankment. It never crossed the rails. I walked the edge of the rain, a straight Iine between rainfall and no rainfall.... The gift was precise, measured. I told Grandpa about this. He said:“Everything has a place where it ends." I told Memaw. She said: "That was the edge of the rim." —Meinrad Craighead(1)

Why the Word God?

A certain liability attends the very word God, given the history of its use in androcentric theology. Insofar as it almost invariably refers to a deity imaged and conceptualized in male form, this word is judged by some feminist thinkers to be a generically masculine form of naming divine reality, and thus not capable of expressing the fullness of feminist insight. In one creative solution, Rosemary Radford Ruether uses the experimental form of reference “God/ess.” This is “a written symbol intended to combine both the masculine and feminine forms of the word for the divine while preserving the Judeo-Christian affirmation that divinity is one."(2) The difficulty with this coinage comes, however, when one turns to oral speech. While indeed pointing in its written form toward a truly inclusive understanding of the divine, the term according to Ruether’s own description is unpronounceable and hence not usable as language for worship, preaching, or teaching. Rebecca Chopp’s robust use of the term “Word,” so central to the Reformation tradition, limns yet another option.(3) In classical theology the Word indeed denotes deity, and does so in its English translation without any immediately obvious connection to gender. This expression furthermore has the advantage of connoting the power to speak, which women are claiming and celebrating in the emancipatory discourses of feminist theology. In certain contexts speech about the Word will continue to be a fruitful usage. As soon as one introduces classic theological reflection on God’s Trinity, however, or the christological questions entailed in the association of the historical man Jesus with the Word, this term too reaches a limit.

Appreciating the insights that are unleashed when the traditional mold is thus broken, my option here is for yet another path. Given the long history of the term God in Christian theology, and especially given its continued and public use virtually everywhere from the most heartfelt worship to secular swearing, the word is not so easily dropped. In this book it continues to be used, but is pointed in new directions through association with metaphors and values arising from women’s experience. Keeping the term may well be an interim strategy, useful until that time when a new word emerges for the as yet unnameable understanding of holy mystery that includes the reality of women as well as all creation. On the way to that day, language of God/She is aimed at generating new content for references to deity in the hopes that this discourse will help to heal imaginations and liberate people for new forms of community.

The dilemma of the word God itself, however, is a real one and not easily resolved. Its effective history has been brutal as well as blessed. This is poignantly crystallized in Martin Buber’s report of a passionate exchange he once had while a house guest of an old philosopher. One morning Buber arose before the sun to proof-read galleys of a piece he had written about faith. His host, also an early riser, asked him to read the piece aloud. To Buber’s chagrin, his old host reacted vehemently:

How can you bring yourself to say “God” time after time?...What word of human speech is so misused, so defiled, so desecrated as this! All the innocent blood that has been shed for it has robbed it of its radiance. All the injustice that it has been used to cover has effaced its features. When I hear the highest called “God,” it sometimes seems almost blasphemous.(4)

The old philosopher spoke more truly than he knew. The innocent blood of women shed for this word, the burning of thousands of wise and independent women called witches, for example, and the continuing injustice of subordination done to women in God’s name is only now coming to light, and it is grave. Perhaps we should have done with the word God altogether.

Buber’s response has always interested me. Rather than offering a rebuttal he agrees with the old philosopher’s critique, seeing however a different option:

Yes, it is the most heavy-laden of all human words. None has become so soiled, so mutilated. Just for this reason I may not abandon it.... The races of man with their religious factions have torn the word to pieces.... Certainly, they draw caricatures and write “God” underneath; they murder one another and say "in God’s name." But when all madness and delusion fall to dust, when they stand over against Him in the loneliest darkness and no longer say “He, He” but rather sigh “Thou,” shout “Thou,” all of them the one word, and when they then add “God,” is it not the real God whom they implore, the One Living God?. . .we must esteem those who interdict it because they rebel against the injustice and wrong which are so readily referred to “God” for authorization. But we may not give it up.... We cannot cleanse the word ‘God’ and we cannot make it whole; but defiled and mutilated as it is, we can raise it from the ground and set it over an hour of great care.(5)

Buber did not see that in the light of dominant androcentric discourse about God a problem remains even when people turn from “He” to “Thou,” for it is still a male personage who is subliminally envisioned, still a “Thou” in the image of “He.” Nevertheless, his basic hunch, that the term God covered with the dirt of past offenses may yet be redeemed if it connects with an hour of great care, may serve as a program. Acknowledging the poverty and idolatry connected with the term, it may yet be transformed in a different semantic context generated by women’s experience. Ultimately this strategy may be superseded, for old wineskins cannot forever hold new wine. But the wager I am making is that at this point in time pouring the new wine of women’s hope of flourishing into the old word God may enable it to serve in new ways. Using “God” in a new semantic field may restore the word to a sense more in line with its Greek etymology, which, according to ancient interpreters, meant to take care of and cherish all things, burning all malice like a consuming fire.(6)

Why Female Symbols of God?

Normative speech about God in metaphors that are exclusively, literally, and patriarchally male is the real life context for this study. As a remedy some scholars and liturgists today take the option of always addressing God simply as “God.” This has the positive result of relieving the hard androcentrism of ruling male images and pronouns for the divine. Nevertheless, this practice, if it is the only corrective engaged in, is not ultimately satisfactory. Besides employing uncritically a term long associated with the patriarchal ordering of the world, its consistent use causes the personal or transpersonal character of holy mystery to recede. It prevents the insight into holy mystery that might occur were female symbols set free to give rise to thought. Most serious of all, it papers over the problem of the implied inadequacy of women’s reality to represent God.(7)

The holy mystery of God is beyond all imagining. In his own epistemological categories Aquinas’s words still sound with the ring of truth in this regard:

Since our mind is not proportionate to the divine substance, that which is the substance of God remains beyond our intellect and so is unknown to us. Hence the supreme knowledge which we have of God is to know that we do not know God, insofar as we know that what God is surpasses all that we can under stand of him [the “him,” so easily assumed, being the problem that this book is addressing].(8)

The incomprehensibility of God makes it entirely appropriate, at times even preferable, to speak about God in nonpersonal or supra personal terms. Symbols such as the ground of being (Paul Tillich), matrix surrounding and sustaining all life (Rosemary Ruether), power of the future (Wolfhart Pannenberg), holy mystery (Karl Rahner), all point to divine reality that cannot be captured in concepts or images. At the same time God is not less than personal, and many of the most prized characteristics of God’s relationship to the world, such as fidelity, compassion, and liberating love, belong to the human rather than the nonhuman world. Thus it is also appropriate, at times even preferable, to speak about God in personal symbols.

Here is where the question of gender arises. Given the powerful ways the ruling male metaphor has expanded to become an entire metaphysical world view, and the way it perdures in imagination even when gender neutral God-language is used, correction of androcentric speech on the level of the concept alone is not sufficient. Since, as Marcia Fall notes, “Dead metaphors make strong idols,”(9) other images must be introduced which shatter the exclusivity of the male metaphor, subvert its dominance, and set free a greater sense of the mystery of God.

One effective way to stretch language and expand our repertoire of images is by uttering female symbols into speech about divine mystery. It is a complex exercise, not necessarily leading to emancipatory speech.(10) An old danger that accompanies this change is that such language may be taken literally; a new danger lies in the potential for stereotyping women’s reality by characterizing God simply as nurturing, caring, and so forth. The benefits, however, in my judgment, outweigh the dangers. Reorienting the imagination at a basic level, this usage challenges the idolatry of maleness in classic language about God, thereby making possible the rediscovery of divine mystery, and points to recovery of the dignity of women created in the image of God.

The importance of the image can hardly be overstated. Far from being peripheral to human knowing, imaginative constructs mediate the world to us. As is clear from contemporary science, literature, and philosophy, this is not to be equated with things being imaginary but with the structure of human knowing, which essentially depends upon paradigms to assemble data and interpret the way things are. We think via the path of images; even the most abstract concepts at root bear traces of the original images which gave them birth. Just as we know the world only through the mediation of imaginative constructs, the same holds true for human knowledge of God. Without necessarily adopting Aquinas’s epistemology, we can hear the truth in his observation:

We can acquire the knowledge of divine things by natural reason only through the imagination; and the same applies to the knowledge given by grace. As Dionysius says, “it is impossible for the divine ray to shine upon us except as screened round about by the many colored sacred veils.’’(11)

Images of God are not peripheral or dispensable to theological speech, nor as we have seen, to ecclesial and social praxis. They are crucially important among the many colored veils through which divine mystery is mediated and by means of which we express relationship in return.(l2)

The nature of symbols for divine mystery is rather plastic, a characteristic that will serve this study well. According to Tillich’s well-known analysis, symbols point beyond themselves to something else, something moreover in which they participate. They open up levels of reality which otherwise are closed, for us, and concomitantly open up depths of our own being, which otherwise would remain untouched. They cannot be produced intentionally but grow from a deep level that Tillich identifies as the collective unconscious. Finally, they grow and die like living beings in relation to their power to bear the presence of the divine in changing cultural situations.(l3) In the struggle against sexism for the genuine humanity of women we are today at a crossroads of the dying and rising of religious symbols. The symbol of the patriarchal idol is cracking, while a plethora of others emerge. Among these are female symbols for divine mystery that bear the six characteristics delineated above. Women realize that they participate in the image of the divine and so their own concrete reality can point toward this mystery. Use of these symbols discloses new depths of holy mystery as well as of the community that uses them. Women’s religious experience is a generating force for these symbols, a clear instance of how great symbols of the divine always come into being not simply as a projection of the imagination, but as an awakening from the deep abyss of human existence in real encounter with divine being.

The symbol gives rise to thought. With this axiom Paul Ricoeur points to the dynamism inherent in a true symbol that participates in the reality it signifies. The symbol gives, and what it gives is an occasion for thinking. This thought has the character of interpretation, for the possibilities abiding in a symbol are multivalent. At the same time, through its own inner structure a symbol guides thought in certain directions and closes off others. It gives its gift of fullest meaning when a thinker risks critical interpretation in sympathy with the reality to which it points. So it is when the concrete, historical reality of women, affirmed as blessed by God, functions as symbol in speech about the mystery of God. Language is informed by the particularity of women’s experience carried in the symbol. Women thereby become a new specific channel for speaking about God, and thought recovers certain fundamental aspects of the doctrine of God otherwise overlooked. To advance the truth of God’s mystery and to redress imbalance so that the community of disciples may move toward a more liberating life, this study engages imagination to speak in female symbols for divine mystery, testing their capacity to bear divine presence and power.(l4)

Why Not Feminine Traits or Dimensions of God?

Having opted to use the word God, and to do so in connection with female symbols, there is yet another decision to be made. At least three distinct approaches to the renewal of speech about God in the direction of greater inclusivity can be identified in current theology. One seeks to give "feminine," qualities to God who is still nevertheless imagined predominantly as a male person. Another purports to uncover a “feminine” dimension in God, often finding this realized in the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. A third seeks speech about God in which the fullness of female humanity as well as of male humanity and cosmic reality may serve as divine symbol, in equivalent ways. Searching the implications of each can show why the first two options lead into a blind alley and why only equivalent imaging of God male and female can in the end do greater justice to the dignity of women and the truth of holy mystery.

Feminine Traits

A minimal step toward the revision of patriarchal God language is the introduction of gentle, nurturing traits traditionally associated with the mothering role of women. The symbol of God the Father in particular benefits from this move. Too often this predominant symbol has been interpreted in association with unlovely traits associated with ruling men in a male-oriented society: aggressiveness, competitiveness, desire for absolute power and control, and demand for obedience. This certainly is not the Abba to whom Jesus prayed, and widespread rejection of such a symbol from Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud onward has created a crisis for Christian consciousness. But it is also possible to see God the Father displaying feminine, so-called maternal features that temper “his” overwhelmingness. William Visser’t Hooft, for example, argues that while the fatherhood of God is and must remain the predominant Christian symbol, it is not a closed or exclusive symbol but is open to its own correction, enrichment, and completion from other symbols such as mother.(15) Thus gentleness and compassion, unconditional love, reverence and care for the weak, sensitivity, and desire not to dominate but to be an intimate companion and friend are predicated of the Father God and make “him” more attractive.(l6) A clue to the use of this approach in an author is almost invariably the word traits: the Bible allows us to speak of maternal traits in God (Visser’t Hooft); to transform our overmasculinized culture, we need to relate to the feminine traits of God (O’Hanlon); although we have forgotten this, the God of revelation has feminine traits such as tenderness (Congar); God is not simply male but has maternal traits (Küng).(17) In this way of speaking God remains Father but in a way tempered by the ideal feminine, so that believers need not fear or rebel against a crushing paternalism.

While this approach is appearing in the work of a fair number of men theologians trying to address the problem of sexism, and while it has the advantage of moving thought counter to the misogynism that has so afflicted Christian anthropology and the doctrine of God, women theologians are virtually unanimous in calling attention to its deficiencies and in precluding it as a long-range option. The reasons for this are several. Even with the introduction of presumably feminine features, the androcentric pattern holds. Since God is still envisioned in the image of the ruling man only now possessing milder characteristics, the feminine is incorporated in a subordinate way into an overall symbol that remains masculine. This is clearly seen in statements such as: God is not exclusively masculine but the “feminine-maternal element must also be recognized in Him."(18) God persists as "him," but is now spoken about as a more wholistic male person who has integrated his feminine side. The patriarchy in this symbol of God is now benevolent, but it is nonetheless still patriarchy. And while the image of God as ruling male as well as real male persons made in “his” image may benefit and grow from the development of nurturing and compassionate qualities in themselves, there is no equivalent attribution to a female symbol or to actual women of corresponding presumably masculine qualities of rationality, power, the authority of leadership, and so forth. Men gain their feminine side, but women do not gain their masculine side (if such categories are even valid). The feminine is there for the enhancement of the male, but not vice-versa: there is no mutual gain. Actual women are then seen as capable of representing only feminine traits of what is still the male-centered symbol of God, the fullness of which can therefore be represented only by a male person. The female can never appear as icon of God in all divine fullness equivalent to the male. Inequality is not redressed but subtly furthered as the androcentric image of God remains in place, made more appealing through the subordinate inclusion of feminine traits.

A critical issue underlying this approach is the legitimacy of the rigid binary system into which it forces thought about human beings and reality itself. Enormous diversity is reduced to two relatively opposed absolutes of masculine and feminine, and this is imposed on the infinite mystery of God. The move also involves dubious stereotyping of certain human characteristics as predominantly masculine or feminine. Even as debate waxes over the distinction between sex and gender, and about whether and to what extent typical characteristics of men and women exist by nature or cultural conditioning, simple critical observation reveals that the spectrum of traits is at least as broad among concrete, historical women as between women and men.(l9) In the light of the gospel, by what right are compassionate love, reverence, and nurturing predicated as primordially feminine characteristics, rather than human ones? Why are strength, sovereignty, and rationality exclusively masculine properties? As Rosemary Ruether astutely formulates the fundamental question: Is it not the case that the very concept of the “feminine” is a patriarchal invention, an ideal projected onto women by men and vigorously defended because it functions so well to keep men in positions of power and women in positions of service to them?(20) Masculine and feminine are among the most culturally stereotyped terms in the language. This is not to say that there are no differences between women and men, but it is to question the justification of the present distribution of virtues and attributes and to find it less than compelling as a description of reality. Such stereotyping serves the genuine humanity of neither women nor men, and feeds an anthropological dualism almost impossible to overcome. Adding “feminine” traits to the male-imaged God furthers the subordination of women by making the patriarchal symbol less threatening, more attractive. This approach does not, then, serve well for speech about God in a more inclusive and liberating direction.

A Feminine Dimension: Holy Spirit

Rather than merely attribute stereotypical feminine qualities to a male- imaged God, a second approach seeks a more ontological footing for the existence of the feminine in God. Most frequently that inroad is found in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, who in classical trinitarian theology is coequal in nature with the Father and the Son. In the Hebrew Scriptures the Spirit is allied with female reality as can be seen not only by the grammatical feminine gender of the term ruah, which in itself proves nothing, but also by the use of the female imagery of the mother bird hovering or brooding to bring forth life, imagery associated with the Spirit of God in creation (Gn 1:2) and at the conception and baptism of Jesus (Lk 1:35 and 3:22). Semitic and Syrian early Christians did construe the divine Spirit in female terms, attributing to the Spirit the motherly character which certain parts of the Scriptures had already found in Israel’s God.(2l) The Spirit is the creative, maternal God who brings about the incarnation of Christ, new members of the body of Christ in the waters of baptism, and the body of Christ through the epiclesis of the eucharist. In time the custom of speaking about the Spirit in female terms waned in the West along with the habit of speaking very extensively about the Spirit at all.

There have been various attempts in recent years to retrieve the full trinitarian tradition while overcoming its inherent patriarchy by speaking about the Spirit as the feminine person of the godhead. When the Spirit is considered the feminine aspect of the divine, however, a host of difficulties ensues. The endemic difficulty of Spirit theology in the West insures that this “person” remains rather unclear and invisible. A deeper theology of the Holy Spirit, notes Walter Kasper in another connection, stands before the difficulty that unlike the Father and Son, the Holy Spirit is “faceless.”(22) While the Son has appeared in human form and while we can at least make a mental image of the Father, the Spirit is not graphic and remains theologically the most mysterious of the three divine persons. For all practical purposes, we end up with two clear masculine images and an amorphous feminine third. Furthermore, the overarching framework of this approach again remains androcentric with the male principle still dominant and sovereign. The Spirit even as God remains the “third” person, easily subordinated to the other two since she proceeds from them and is sent by them to mediate their presence and bring to completion what they have initiated. The direction in which this leads may be seen in Franz Mayr’s attempt to understand the Holy Spirit as mother on the analogy of family relationships: if we liberate motherhood from a naturalistic concept and see it in its existential-social reality, then we can indeed see how the mother comes from the father and the son, that is, how she receives her existential stamp and identity from them both within the family.(23) As even a passing feminist analysis makes clear, while intending to rehabilitate the feminine, Mayr has again accomplished its subordination in unequal relationships.

The problem of stereotyping also plagues this approach. More often than not those who use it associate the feminine with unconscious dreams and fantasies (Bachiega), or with nature, instinct, and bodiliness (Schrey), or with prime matter (Mayr), all of which is then predicated of God through the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.(24) The equation is thus set up: male is to female as transcendence is to immanence, with the feminine Spirit restricted to the role of bearing the presence of God to our inferiority. This stereotyping appears even in a creative attempt by process theologian John B. Cobb to come to grips with the charge of idolatry of the male in worship and thought. While acknowledging that currently the received polarity of feminine and masculine is subject to redescription, he goes on to identify the Logos, the masculine aspect of God, with order, novelty, demand, agency, transformation; and the Spirit, the feminine aspect of God, with receptivity, empathy, suffering, preservation. The lines are drawn: the Logos provides ever-new initial aims and lures us always forward, while the feminine aspect of God responds tenderly to our failures and successes, assures us that whatever happens we are loved, and achieves in her totality a harmonious wholeness of all that is.(25) There is real danger that simply identifying the Spirit with “feminine” reality leaves the overall symbol of God fundamentally unreformed and boxes actual women into a stereotypical ideal.

Recent Catholic theologies of the Spirit on three continents bear this out. In Europe Yves Congar has synthesized the learning of a lifetime in his trilogy on the Holy Spirit which gives an excellent comprehensive overview of the history of the doctrine of the Spirit and its ecumenical thorniness in relation to Orthodox churches. With a view toward contemporary concerns, he also adduces historical precedent for casting the Spirit in a feminine mold, calling the Spirit the feminine person in God, or again, God’s femininity. In developing this idea Congar warns against locking women into the “harem” of preconceived roles of charm and passivity, and seeks to avoid this pitfall by concentrating on the maternal functions of the Spirit, which are interpreted as substantive and active. Accordingly, he describes ways in which the Spirit brings forth, loves, and educates as a mother does, by daily presence and communication that operates more on an affective than intellectual level.(26) However, while acknowledging that women want to emerge from preconceived notions to be simply and authentically persons, this author effectively reduces women’s identity to the one role of mothering, an utterly important one to be sure, but just as certainly not the only role women exercise in the course of a lifetime. Nor is its execution devoid of the exercise of intellect.

In his essay on Mary as the maternal face of God, Latin American theologian Leonardo Boff holds that the Holy Spirit is the person in the Trinity who appropriates the feminine in a unique way and who can be said to have feminine, especially maternal, traits. What the feminine consists of is described philosophically and theologically under the primary rubric of the Jungian anima. Maternity, which Boff sees as constitutive of the personhood of women, accords primarily with love and self-giving, which are classical names for the Spirit. What is unique about this discussion is the novel hypothesis according to which the feminine dimension of the Spirit is worked out in affinity with the person of the Virgin Mary. In analogy with the incarnation of the Word in Jesus, the Spirit divinizes the feminine in the person of Mary, who in turn is to be regarded as hypostatically united to the third person of the blessed Trinity, for the benefit of all womankind:

The Spirit, the eternal feminine, is united to the created feminine in order that the latter may be totally and fully what it can be—virgin and mother. Mary as Christian piety has always intuited, is the eschatological realization of the feminine in all of its dimensions.(27)

The simplest feminist analysis makes clear that in the case of actual women in all their historical concreteness, the categories of virgin and mother come nowhere near summing up the totality of what is possible for women’s self-realization. Furthermore, even Boff’s analysis of the feminine in relation to the Virgin Mary runs aground, finally, on the rocks of inconsistency. His moving depiction of Mary as a prophetic woman of liberation announcing God’s justice in her Magnificat runs counter to his other descriptions of her participating in salvation “silently and unassumingly” according to the norm of the feminine.(28)

In developing his thesis Boff is self-critically aware that his is a male view of femininity, and he issues warnings against the male tendency either to consider women infantile characters or to overidealize them. He is trying to give women direct access to the divine, as Christian men have always enjoyed with their physical similarity to Jesus. In spite of this, however, his option for uncritical Jungian ground where the feminine is equated with darkness, death, depth, and receptivity and the masculine with light, transcendence, outgoingness, and reason, even while allowing that neither set of qualities is limited to men or women alone, coupled with his limitation of this feminine dimension to the Spirit alone within the godhead, insures an outcome that is not liberating for women.

Working out of a primarily Lonerganian context liberally salted with North American philosophy, Donald Gelpi develops a foundational pneumatology by constructing a theology of “Holy Breath” from the perspective of human religious experience.(29) In the effort to find a suitably personal iconography for the divine Breath, usually portrayed as a bird or fire, he taps into the feminine image rooted in Scripture as developed by Jungian personality theory. Well aware of the objections to the sexist connotations of archetypal imagery and writing passionately against sexism, he shows how a transvalued archetype of the feminine, that is, one divested of its shadow side, may appropriately organize feminine images of the Holy Breath and her functions of birth, enlightenment, and the transformation of life.

Once again, however, a difficulty ensues with this correlation between the Spirit, the feminine archetype, and the situation of women. Jungian archetypes are open to the charge of sexism not necessarily in the sense of being misogynist, which notion Gelpi seeks to allay, but insofar as they shrink the identity of the vast range of concrete and different women into preset characteristics and limit their options to historically predetermined roles. These roles are culturally conditioned by the society in which Jung lived, and do not include intellectual, artistic, or public leadership. Furthermore, Gelpi’s effort to remove the shadow side of the feminine in order to find suitable metaphor for God debilitates one powerful source of female energy. In the conflictual, suffering world, actual women need to tap into their own pride and anger as sources of empowerment rather than be stripped of these so-called shadows.

In a church rigorously structured by patriarchal hierarchy, a Dominican, a Franciscan, and a Jesuit have tried to alleviate the sexism of the central symbol for God by imaging the Holy Spirit as feminine. I for one appreciate their efforts even as I criticize their results. The goodwill of these men is palpable and their intent is positive. Yet their methodological options insure that they do not listen to women’s own self-definitions but develop a one-sided view of “the feminine” structurally conducive to the public power and private well-being of men. Besides the very real question of whether nature or culture shapes these descriptions of "feminine" roles, their effect on the being and function of concrete, historical women is deleterious and restrictive. Nurturing and tenderness simply do not exhaust the capacities of women; nor do bodiliness and instinct define women’s nature; nor is intelligence and creative transformative agency beyond the scope of women’s power; nor can the feminine be equated exclusively with mothering, affectivity, darkness, virginity, the Virgin Mary, or the positive feminine archetype without suffocating women’s potential. Rosemary Ruether’s question returns again in force, as to whether the very concept of the “feminine” used to define the essence of actual historical women is not a creature of patriarchy, useful insofar as it relegates women to the realm of the private and the role of succoring the male. When used to describe the Holy Spirit as the feminine dimension of God, the result is not a view of God that may liberate, empower, or develop women as imago Dei in all their complex female dimensions.

Unexamined presuppositions about the doctrine of God itself raise a further theological question about this approach. In what sense can it be claimed that God has “dimensions,” let alone the dualistically conceived dimensions of masculine and feminine? Such an idea extends human divisions to the godhead itself. It actually ontologizes sex in God making sexuality a dimension of divine being, rather than respecting the symbolic nature of religious language.

We must be very clear about this. Speech about God in female metaphors does not mean that God has a feminine dimension, revealed by Mary or other women. Nor does the use of male metaphors mean that God has a masculine dimension, revealed by Jesus or other men; or an animal dimension, revealed by lions or great mother birds, or a mineral dimension, which corresponds with naming God a rock. Images and names of God do not aim to identify merely “part” of the divine mystery, were that even possible. Rather, they intend to evoke the whole. Female imagery by itself points to God as such and has the capacity to represent God not only as nurturing, although certainly that, but as powerful, initiating, creating-redeeming-saving, and victorious over the powers of this world. If women are created in the image of God, then God can be spoken of in female metaphors in as full and as limited a way as God is imaged in male ones, without talk of feminine dimensions reducing the impact of this imagery. Understanding the Holy Spirit as the feminine dimension of the divine within a patriarchal framework is no solution. Even at its best, it does not liberate.

Equivalent Images of God Male and Female

While both the “traits” and the “dimensions” approach are inadequate for language about God inasmuch as in both an androcentric focus remains dominant, a third strategy speaks about the divine in images taken equivalently from the experience of women, men, and the world of nature. This approach shares with the other two the fundamental assumption that language about God as personal has a special approriateness. Behaviorism notwithstanding, human persons are the most mysterious and attractive reality that we experience and the only creatures who bear self-reflective consciousness. God is not personal like anyone else we know, but the language of person points in a unique way to the mysterious depths and freedom of action long associated with the divine.

Predicating personality of God, however, immediately involves us in questions of sex and gender, for all the persons we know are either male or female. The mystery of God is properly understood as neither male nor female but transcends both in an unimaginable way. But insofar as God creates both male and female in the divine image and is the source of the perfections of both, either can equally well be used as metaphor to point to divine mystery. Both in fact are needed for less inadequate speech about God, in whose image the human race is created. This “clue”(30) for speaking of God in the image of male and female has the advantage of making clear at the outset that women enjoy the dignity of being made in God’s image and are therefore capable as women of representing God. Simultaneously, it relativizes undue emphasis on any one image, since pressing the multiplicity of imagery shows the partiality of images of one sex alone. The incomprehensible mystery of God is brought to light and deepened in our consciousness through imaging of male and female, beyond any person we know.(3l)

Although drawing their predominant speech about God from the pool of male images, the biblical, early theological, and medieval mystical traditions also use female images of the divine without embarrassment or explanation. The images and personifications are not considered feminine aspects or features of the divine, to be interpreted in dualistic tension with masculine dimensions or traits, but rather they are representations of the fullness of God in creating, redeeming, and calling the world to eschatological shalom.

Ancient religions that spoke of deity in both male and female symbols may also be helpful in clarifying the thrust of this third approach. As evidenced in psalms and prayers, male and female deities were not stereotyped according to later ideas of what was properly masculine and feminine, but each represented a diversity of divine activities and attributes. In them “gender division is not yet the primary metaphor for imaging the dialectics of human existence,”(32) nor is the idea of gender complementarily present in the ancient myths. Rather, male and female enjoy broad and equivalent powers. A goddess such as Ishtar, for example, is addressed by devotees as a source of divine power and sovereignty embodied in female form, and praised as a deity who performs the divine works of dividing heaven from earth, setting captives free, waging war, establishing peace, administering justice, exercising judgment, and enlightening human beings with truth, along with presiding over birth, healing the sick, and nurturing the little ones.(33) When a god such as Horus is addressed, he is credited with similar functions. Both male and female are powerful in the private and public spheres.

The point for our interest is that the female deity is not the expression of the feminine dimension of the divine, but the expression of the fullness of divine power and care shown in a female image. A striking example of the same intuition is given in Luke’s Gospel in the parallel parables of the shepherd looking for his lost sheep and the homemaker looking for her lost coin (15:4-10). In both stories someone vigorously seeks what is lost and rejoices with others when it is found. Neither story discloses anything about God that the other hides. Using traditional men’s and women’s work, both parables orient the hearer to God’s redeeming action in images that are equivalently male and female. The woman with the coin image, while not frequently portrayed in Christian art due largely to the androcentric nature of the traditioning process, is essentially as legitimate a reference to God as is the shepherd with his sheep. Conversely, God spoken of in this way cannot be used to validate role stereotyping wherein the major redeeming work in the world is done by men to the exclusion or marginalization of women.

The mystery of God transcends all images but can be spoken about equally well and poorly in concepts taken from male or female reality. The approach advocated here proceeds with the insight that only if God is so named, only if the full reality of women as well as men enters into the symbolization of God along with symbols from the natural world, can the idolatrous fixation on one image be broken and the truth of the mystery of God, in tandem with the liberation of all human beings and the whole earth, emerge for our time.


The linguistic options which guide this study, made with the judgment that they are appropriate and necessary, converge into speech about God using female metaphors that intend to designate the whole of divine mystery. Theoretically I endorse the ideal of language for God in male and female terms used equivalently, as well as the use of cosmic and metaphysical symbols. In actual fact, however, male and female images simply have not been nor are they even now equivalent. Female religious symbols of the divine are underdeveloped, peripheral, considered secondarily if at all in Christian language and the practice it continues to shape, much like women through whose image they point to God. In my judgment, extended theological speaking about God in female images, or long draughts of this new wine, are a condition for the very possibility of equivalent imaging of God in religious speech. This book’s choice to use mainly female symbolism for God, let me state clearly, is not intended as a strategy of subtraction, still less of reversal. Rather, it is an investigation of a suppressed world directed ultimately toward the design of a new whole. Shaping this kind of speech is not an end in itself but must be received as an essential element in reordering an unjust and deficiently religious situation. Until a strong measure of undervalued female symbolism is introduced and used with ease, equivalent imaging of God male and female, which I myself have advocated and still hold to be a goal, remains an abstraction, expressive of an ideal but unrealizable in actual life.(34)

In the task of shaping new discourse about God this study draws on a number of key resources: women’s interpreted experience, and critical retrieval of elements in Scripture and the classical tradition. Each of these in its own way contributes building blocks for a liberating naming toward God. To these resources we now turn.

Notes. Cbapter3 /Basic Linguistic Options: God, Women, Equivalence

1. Meinrad Craighead, Tbe Mother’s Songs: Images of God tbe Mother (New York: Paulist, 1986) 15.

2. Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk (see chap. 2, n. 33) 46.

3. Chopp, Tbe Power to Speak (see chap. 1, n. 8).

4. Martin Buber, Eclipse of God: Studies in tbe Relation between Religion and Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1952) 7.

5. Ibid., 7-9.

6. Aquinas, here following Damascene: ST 1, q. 13, a. 8.

7. This has been well noted by Rita Gross, “Female God Language in a Jewish Context," in Womanspirit Rising (see chap. 1, n. 19) 167-73.

8. Aquinas, De Potentia (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1952) q. 7, a. 5.

9. Marcia Falk, “Notes on Composing New Blessings," in Weaving tbe Visions (see chap. 1, n. 19) 167-73.

10. As Caroline Walker Bynum points out, “Gender-related symbols, in their full complexity, may refer to gender in ways that affirm or reverse it, support or question it; or they may, in their basic meaning, have little at all to do with male and female roles (“Introduction: The Complexity of Symbols," Gender and Religion: On the Complexity of Symbols ed. Caroline Walker Bynum, Stevan Harrell, and Paula Richman (Boston: Beacon, 1986 )2)

11. ST I,q. 12,a. 13.

12. The importance of image and the imagination has been an issue in religious studies for at least two decades, triggered into prominence by Ray Hart’s insightful Unfinished Man and the Imagination: Toward an Ontology and a Rhetoric of Revelation (NewYork: Herder & Herder, 1968). The theme developed in the 1970s through studies such as Amos Wilder’s, Tbeopoetic and the Religious lmagination (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), and John Bouker’s, The Religious Imagination and tbe Sense of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978). David Tracy’s analysis of ecumenical differences in imagination has become a classic in its own right: Tbe Analogical Imagination: Cbristian Theology and tbe Culture of Pluralism (New York: Crossroad, 1981). I am indebted to the analysis of both Gordon Kaufman, The Theological Imagination (see chap. 1, n. 3), and Garrett Green, Imagining God: Theology and tbe Religious Imagination (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), two very different approaches but both enlightening. Margaret Miles’s excellent work Image as Insight: Visual Understanding in Western Christanity and Secular Culture (Boston: Beacon, 1985) exposes the power of the image to shape moral values; Nelle Morton shows a way forward in The Journey is Home (see chap. l, n.23), especially "How Images Function," 31-39, “Beloved Image,” 122-46, and “The Goddess as Metaphoric Image," 147-75.

13. Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1957) 41-48. An enlightening treatise that further probes the symbolic mediation of religious knowledge is Avery Dulles, Models of Revelation (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983).

14. The reader is invited to dwell with the illustrations of God in this book as examples of the power of the image to move thought and praxis in specific directions. See Ricoeur Symbolism of Evil (see chap. 1, n. 10) 347-57.

15. W A. Visser’t Hooft, The Fatherhood of God in an Age of Emancipation (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982) 133.

16. This list of feminine characteristics is taken from Daniel O’Hanlon, “The Future of Theism," CTSAP 38 (1983) 8.

17. Visser’t Hooft, TheFatherhood of God, 133; O’Hanlon, “Future of Theism,” 7-8; Yves Congar, I Believe in theHoly Spirit, 3vols.,trans. David Smith (NewYork: Seabury, 1983) 3: 155-64; Hans Küng, Does God Exist? (see chap. 2, n. 6) 673.

18. Küng, Does God Exist? 673.

19. Carr, Transforming Grace (see chap. 1, n. 15), chap. 4 surveys the academic study of gender.

20. Rosemary Radford Ruether, “The Female Nature of God: A Problem in Contemporary Religious Life,” in God as Father? (see chap. 2, n. 57) 61-66. Much contemporary use of the concept of the feminine is related to the categories codified by Carl Jung; see Naomi Goldenberg, ‘A Feminist Critique of Jung," Signs (Winter 1976) 443-49, and “Important Directions for a Feminist Critique of Religion in the Works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung,” Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1976.

21. Robert Murray, “The Holy Spirit as Mother,” in Symbols of Church and Kingdom (London: Cambridge University Press, 1975) 312-20; P A. De Boer, Fatherhood and Motherhood in Israelite and Judean Piety (Leiden: Brill, 1974).

22. Kasper, God of Jesus Christ (see chap. 2, n. 11) 223.

23. Franz Mayr, “Trinitätstheologie und theologische Anthropologie,” Zeitschrift für Tbeologie und Kirche 68 (1971) 474. This is reminiscent of Basil of Caesarea, who at one point held that the Holy Spirit was equal in nature but not in rank or dignity with the Father and the Son: Contra Eunomium 3.2 (PG 29.657c). While he later changed his position, the incident is illustrative of the tendency to subordinate the Holy Spirit.

24. Mario Bachiega, Dio Padre o Dea Madre? (Florence, 1976); H. H. Schrey, “Ist Gott ein Mann?” Theologische Rundschau 44 (1979) 233; Mayr, “Trinitätstheologie,” 469.

25. John B. Cobb, “The Trinity and Sexist Language,” in his Christ in a PluralisticAge (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975) 264. George Tavard sets up a similar polarity in Women in Christian Tradition (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 1973) 195-99, but then questions it on the basis of the difficulties it presents.

26. Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, especially “The Motherhood in God and the Femininity of the Holy Spirit,” 3: 155-64.

27. Leonardo Boff, The Maternal Face of God: Tbe Feminine and Its Religious Expressions, trans. Robert Barr and John Diercksmeier (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis, 1987) 101.

28. Ibid., 188-203 vs. 119 and passim.

29. Donald Gelpi, The Divine Mother: A Trinitarian Theology of the Holy Spirit (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1984).

30. Phyllis Trible’s expression, used throughout God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978).

31. Herbert Richardson recounts the following personal recollection. As a child he was taught to say a bedtime prayer “Father-Mother God, loving me, guard me while I sleep, guide my little feet up to thee." It was thereby borne in upon his young mind that if the divine is both Father and Mother, God is different from any one thing he experienced around him (Women and Religion [see chap. 2, n. 20] 164-65).

32. Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk (see chap. 2, n. 33) 52.

33. See the prayers in Frederick Grant, Hellenistic Religions: The Age of Syncretism (New York: Liberal Arts, 1953) 131-33; and historical studies by scholars such as Judith Ochshorn, Tbe Female Experience and the Nature of the Divine (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981). The use of equivalent imagery did not necessarily mean that these societies were egalitarian; the feminist liberation hermeneutic introduces something genuinely new in this regard.

34. Elizabeth A. Johnson, “The Incomprehensibility of God and the Image of God Male and Female,” TS 45 (1984) 441-65. Dorothee Soelle puts the same idea more graphically: “We do not mean to substitute a dominant feminist exclusivity, but in a paternalistic culture language has to be turned on its head before anyone will begin to grasp what the problem is and to understand that human beings might choose another symbol to identfy with” (“Mysticism—Liberation—Feminism,” in Tbe Strength of the Weak [see chap. 2, n. 57] 101).

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