Exploring the feminine and masculine impulses of Godde
review of Elizabeth Johnson's 'SHE WHO IS'
She Who Is: 11 Critique of the Way People Speak about 'God'
It is clear that the way the christian community ordinarily speaks about 'God' is based on the model of the ruling male human being, and reflects the experience of men in charge within a patriarchal system.
The problem does not lie in the fact that male metaphors are used, as such, but these male terms are used 1. exclusively 2. literally, and 3. patriarchally.
Exclusively: prevailing christian language names 'God' solely with male designations, causing speech about Godde in female metaphors to be neglected, marginalised, or even made to appear deviant.
Literally: the mystery of Godde is beyond all human comprehension, but the exclusively male symbol is often spoken in an uncritically literal way, that can have the subliminal power to make 'maleness' seem like an essential character of divine being.
Yet crucially, Elizabeth Johnson reasons, Father and Son are names that designate relationships rather than an essence in itself.
Similarly, words such as father, king, lord, bridegroom, husband, are often not seen as metaphors to express relationships, but literal identities and essential and exclusive 'maleness' in the divine. That this literal assumption is common in christian community can be seen in the way dismay is often registered when and if Godde is referred to with female images or pronouns.
Patriarchally: the world of men - ruling men in society and religious community - has provided the paradigm for the symbol of 'God' as the ruling man within a patriarchal system. The exclusive and literal patriarchy of the symbol of 'God' can be seen (for example) most commonly represented in western art as an older white-bearded man.
Moreover, this androcentric basis was continued in New Testament times in a cultural climate where Greek philosophical tradition was highly influential, and attributed the male principle with spirit, the mind, reason, and action; while attributing the female principle with (inferior) matter, the body, passion. In this profoundly dualistic context, male is to female as autonomy is to dependence, as strength is to weakness, as fullness is to emptiness, as dynamism is to stasis, as good is to evil.
The logic that follows inexorably from such assumptions (or prejudices) is that the divine can only be spoken of properly in terms of the spiritually masculine, to the exclusion of the passive, material feminine.
We see, in evolving christian thought and tradition, through authors like Aquinas, just how far this dualistic influence extended. Through evolving and consolidating tradition, and noticeably in our own times too, the movement towards exclusive and literal masculinisation of Godde has been intensified as a result of dogmatism and an inclination towards the literal in scriptural text.
It is interesting that - while the sex of the human being Jesus is readily transferred to define an exclusive gender for 'God' - other historical particularities of the human Jesus, such as his ethnic identity, his nationality, his age, his social status and so on, are not transferred as exclusive attributes of Godde.
Yet, as the visible image of the invisible Godde, the human man Jesus is repeatedly used to tie the knot between maleness and divinity very tightly. The effect is to argue the viability of male metaphors and the supposed unsuitability of female ones in speech about Godde.
Feminist theological analysis makes clear that exclusive, literal, patriarchal speech about Godde has a twofold negative effect. To quote Elizabeth Johnson:
'In stereotyping and then banning female reality as suitable metaphor for God, such speech justifies the dominance of men while denigrating the human dignity of women.'
'Simultaneously this discourse so reduces divine mystery to the single, reified metaphor of the ruling man that the symbol itself loses its religious significance and ability to point to ultimate truth. It becomes, in a word, an idol.'
Both harms interact, because damage to the 'imago Dei' in the creature inevitably shortchanges knowledge of the Creator in whose image she is made.
'Inauthentic ways of treating other human beings go hand-in-glove with falsifications of the idea of God.'
In short, to the extent that we limit or distort or denigrate the roles and characteristics of human beings, made in the image of Godde, we also by implication falsify our understanding of this Godde in whose image we are made.
Links to my summary pages on 'She Who Is':